PHILADELPHIA – At all corners of a quiet and downtrodden clubhouse, the Braves tried to find the answers they do not have at this moment. Inexplicably, one of the franchise’s best teams is done playing in the middle of October. The dream season did not end in confetti and champagne, but with somber goodbye hugs and hung heads walking out the door.

“It stinks,” Travis d’Arnaud said. “We were all hoping to get to the next round, all very confident. And to come up short, it stinks right now. It’s something we weren’t envisioning. To go through it, it’s hard. It’s hard to process. I guess I haven’t really done it fully yet. I’m sure a week from now, I’ll have a different answer. But it stinks right now.”

“I mean, it stinks,” A.J. Minter said. “We just have a lot of pride, being an Atlanta Brave. And when you put on this uniform, you know as a team, we expect nothing (less) than a World Series. … We’ve had a lot of personal achievements this year that were truly incredible, and I couldn’t be more happy for those guys. But as a team, we failed.”

“Having the season we did,” Michael Harris II said, “obviously you want to make it a little further.”

The question to be answered, now and in the coming months, is this: How?

How were the 2023 Braves, one of the best teams in franchise history, eliminated in the first round?

How did a record-breaking offense, which is perhaps the best lineup in history, go silent when it mattered most?

How did these Braves, who finished 14 games ahead of the Phillies in the regular season, lose to them in four games in the National League Division Series yet again?

How is this season – one with realistic World Series aspirations – over on the night of Oct. 12?

Phillies 3, Braves 1. A historic regular was just that – a historic regular season.

All the time, baseball people talk about the postseason’s randomness. October is different than the months that precede it. This might be true, but it doesn’t make it any easier to grasp that a team that won 104 games – the second most in franchise history – is out this early. They were the World Series favorites.

“Yeah, it’s hard,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s tough. It takes a while to get over something like this after the year we had, the expectation we have here.”

In the visiting clubhouse after the loss, Snitker gathered his players for one final message. They had no reason to hang their heads, he told them. “It stinks what just happened,” the manager said. The Braves envisioned a deep postseason run that ended with a World Series trophy.

In the clubhouse after the loss, d’Arnaud, Minter, Harris, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Spencer Strider and others tried to explain the inexplicable. (Ronald Acuña Jr. declined to speak to reporters.) How did this happen? How can it be real? How can it be prevented in the future?

Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC

The 2023 Braves tied the MLB team home run record. They set other franchise and MLB records. Acuña made history by creating the 40-50, 40-60 and 40-70 clubs. Strider now holds the franchise record for strikeouts in a season. The Braves became the first team to slug .501 over a season in MLB history. And on and on.

How?

They searched for the words. They thought hard. In the moment, emotion overtook them. They are dealing with something they never expected. In the summer, no one saw this – an early Braves exit – in October. Two years in a row, the Braves steamrolled their competition in the regular season, only to fall far short of their goal.

“I mean, it’s hard to explain,” Strider said. “To fans who would like an answer, I’d love to give them one. Ultimately, I think we gotta accept whatever we did, whatever we’re doing, wasn’t enough. If we truly want to win a World Series, if that’s our goal, then we’re gonna have to change something or add something, in the way we prepare and the way that we focus.

“What we do in the regular season seems to be working, but we’re gonna have to make an adjustment to the postseason approach. That’s tough to say. It’s a daunting thing to confront right this minute. But that’s something I’m gonna get to work on and we’re gonna get to work on as an organization the moment we get out of here.”

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker (43) makes a pitching change for starting pitcher Spencer Strider, center, during the sixth inning of NLDS Game 4 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.   (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

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Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

During his first meeting in North Port, Florida, each season, Snitker talks to his group about checking the boxes. The first is winning the division – because to hoist a trophy, a team must first earn a spot in the dance. For the sixth year in a row, the Braves won the NL East.

This shouldn’t be forgotten: The Phillies thoroughly outplayed Atlanta. They blasted more home runs. They executed key pitches when necessary. They fed off their home crowd and eliminated the Braves – again.

“The Phillies stifled us,” Snitker said. “I mean, they pitched really well. They had great plans. Their guys got big hits. I mean, you can’t take anything away from that. … We got beat and didn’t play good enough to win the series. It’s as simple as that. We got beat by a really good club that has a penchant for this time of year.”

Asked for the difference in this series, which lasted only four games for the second straight season, d’Arnaud said: “They pitched excellent. They got the big hits, the big homers. We got out-homered. That’s what it was. It was homers and good pitching by them.”

The Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, Rays and Brewers – the teams with baseball’s five best records – have all been eliminated. The Diamondbacks, the National League’s third Wild Card team, will face the Phillies in the National League Championship Series. This was supposed to be the Braves.

All season, the baseball world marveled at the Braves. They mashed homers. They had a deep pitching staff, despite the injuries to it. Their bullpen could shut down opponents. One through nine, their lineup was dangerous. A good example of this: Toward the end of the summer, ESPN wrote a story in which it asked rival executives to try to find a weakness in this Braves team. Those executives tried their best to nitpick, and knew they were grasping at straws.

These guys were so, so good. It shouldn’t have ended like this.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Olson said. “We watched this team play the entire season. We loved our chances, we loved the guys in here. It’s one of the best teams I’ve played on. To come in here and lose that to them again like we did last year, it stings. They played better than us. They played better than us last year, they played better than us this year. It sucks to have the success during the season and come in and lose the series.”

What a year.

“It’s something that I didn’t believe I would be able to witness,” said Harris, who then referenced different records.

“Oh, it’s gonna be one of the greatest (seasons),” Albies said. “We did a lot of great things. We all said congrats on everybody’s season.”

In time, the Braves will appreciate their accomplishments. They deserve to do so. But for now, this one stings. They were destined for so much more, not a mid-October flight back to Atlanta to begin their offseason.

After Vaughn Grissom struck out to end the 2023 season, multiple Braves – including Nicky Lopez – stayed in the dugout and watched the Phillies celebrate for a couple moments.

“I didn’t know how long I was there,” Lopez said. “Kind of just froze.”

Lopez’s story is a terrific representation of this team. Before the Braves acquired him, he’d had a couple tough seasons in Kansas City. At one point, he remembers talking to his parents and fiancée about his future.

“Who knows if I even want to play?” he told them.

As he recalled this, with tears beginning to form, he stood in the clubhouse at the end of his first postseason. It didn’t go how he wanted, but he felt grateful for it. For the memories. For his new teammates.

“Coming here, they made baseball fun again,” Lopez said of the 2023 Braves.

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