At many points in Tuesday’s game, a momentum shift felt imminent. All afternoon, the Braves threatened and pressed. They hit and walked. They worked at-bats.
They seemed destined to alter their fortunes with one of the offensive onslaughts for which they are known. That moment never came -- until the ninth inning.
With the Braves down four runs, Matt Olson launched a three-run shot to straightaway center off Zach Eflin. It gave the Braves life.
For a moment, at least.
The homer was simply one final chance on a day full of missed opportunities.
The Braves lost to the Phillies 7-6 in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. The Braves are 4-17 in postseason series play when they lose Game 1. They face an uphill climb, but the series is, of course, far from over, especially because the Braves’ resiliency has defined the team all season.
After Olson’s homer, William Contreras flared a ball to right, but a beautiful catch took away a hit. Then, Travis d’Arnaud grounded out to end the game.
The Braves lost this game in the hours before those at-bats. The Phillies scored five two-out runs. The Braves, on the other hand, went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base.
“Pretty simple in the playoffs: It always comes down to pitching, defense and timely hitting, and they won in that (timely hitting) department today,” Dansby Swanson said.
The day began in an ominous way: Max Fried, the Braves’ trusted ace, lasted only 3-1/3 innings and was charged with six runs – four earned – on eight hits. He was not sharp, and his velocity was down a tad from his season average. Fried’s poor start, uncharacteristic for a left-hander who will receive National League Cy Young Award votes, set the tone as he stumbled in his first time pitching since coming down with the flu.
“Just wasn’t able to put guys away when I needed to,” Fried said. “Maybe some two-strike pitches, even though they were still in the strike zone, the balls should be a little bit outside to get them to chase, a little bit of weaker contact. They were able to put the bat on the ball enough to be able to get base hits and keep the line moving. They had good approaches.”
The Braves’ offense is dangerous enough to overcome deficits, though. This game was not over – not when Fried departed in the fourth inning, and not when the Braves fell behind by six runs in the fifth. The Braves, a homer-happy team, can quickly turn losses into wins.
Phillies 7, Braves 6 (box score)
The Braves loaded the bases twice in the first three innings. In the first inning, Contreras, who received an unfortunate strike call, grounded into an inning-ending double play. In the third, d’Arnaud – who drove in three runs with a solo home run and a two-run double – struck out.
Phillies starter Ranger Suarez held the Braves to a run over 3-1/3 innings. A stable of relievers then pieced together the rest of the game.
“We had some chances and obviously didn’t capitalize on our opportunities early – or really any of our opportunities,” Swanson said. “Difference in the game was really just two-out hitting. They scored a bunch of runs with two outs and we didn’t. Pretty simple in the playoffs. It always comes down to pitching, defense and timely hitting, and they won in that department today.”
Added Robbie Grossman: “It’s baseball. I bet next time our guys are up, I’d take them over anyone to get them in.”
Then again, you would’ve thought the Braves’ pitching would’ve given them more of a chance. Their arms have, for the most part, been terrific this season. On Tuesday, the Phillies scored in four of the first five innings, including three two-run frames.
In the regular season, Fried allowed three runs over 30 first innings. On Tuesday, he surrendered two first-inning runs when the Phillies strung together four consecutive hits against him. Fried didn’t receive much help from his defense, as Orlando Arcia couldn’t get to one grounder that shot past him for a single before a liner later fell in front of Ronald Acuña in right field.
And in the third inning, Fried didn’t help himself as he put on the leadoff man with a throwing error that pulled Olson off first base. The Phillies eventually scored two more runs on a sacrifice fly and a single. After Fried exited, Jesse Chavez allowed an earned run.
The Braves ended the regular season with a wild week: They crept toward the Mets in the standings, then caught, passed and swept New York. Two days after their final victory over the Mets, the Braves clinched their fifth consecutive National League East division title. They entered the postseason with hopes of defending their World Series title.
Their goal is still in front of them. If we have learned anything about these Braves, it’s that they will be tough outs this October.
“I feel like this team’s always been good at responding well,” Swanson said. “Tomorrow’s another opportunity for that. We’ve done it throughout this year, we obviously did it last year. Tomorrow’s a new day and we’re going to be ready for it.”
But they hoped for a better start to their title defense.
Now, the Braves will look to even the series Wednesday, as Kyle Wright will face the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler.
“We play a five-game series for a reason here,” Olson said. “Flush it, we’ve got some more opportunities and try and win a game tomorrow.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution