Braves will play Phillies, who eliminated Cardinals

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper watches his solo home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning in Game 2 of an NL wild-card baseball playoff series Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper watches his solo home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning in Game 2 of an NL wild-card baseball playoff series Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS – The Phillies didn’t come to St. Louis to be a footnote in their fairytale. They came to be the force that ensured the Cardinals’ greatest fantasy remained just that.

In an upset, the Phillies swept the Cardinals in the inaugural Wild Card Series. They won consecutive games this weekend, capped with a 2-0 victory Saturday that ended the legendary careers of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina.

Most relevant to the Phillies, they earned a date with their long-time enemies, the Braves, in the National League Division Series that begins Tuesday at Truist Park. The Braves and Phillies have played since the 1800s and have been division rivals since 1994. But they’ve met only once in the postseason when the Phillies beat the Braves in six games during the 1993 National League Championship Series.

The Braves went 11-8 against the Phillies this season.

Now, they meet again in 2022 in a best-of-five duel that’ll send the winner to the NL Championship Series. The Braves, a team beginning its World Series title defense, and the Phillies, a club that ended an 11-year postseason drought and shocked the Cardinals with two gutsy road victories, should make for a fiery series.

“Nobody said it would be easy, you have to earn it,” Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm said. “We’re going to go in (Atlanta) and it’s going to be some competitive baseball.”

The postseason’s opening weekend featured sensational pitching across the country. The Cardinals and Phillies were part of that Friday when Zack Wheeler and Jose Quintana pitched to a stalemate. St. Louis took a late 2-0 lead on Juan Yepez’s pinch-hit homer but the Phillies scored six in a wild ninth to win.

On Saturday, the Phillies rode their other ace Aaron Nola. He was stellar in his postseason debut, holding the Cardinals scoreless for 6-2/3 innings. He had six strikeouts, five of which came with runners on base.

“He’s a big-game pitcher. ... He’s worth every penny,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He’s really something. He really is. He’s cool as a cucumber and just gives us great starts. He’s so consistent. I just can’t say enough about him.”

The Cardinals had a sliver of hope in the sixth when Pujols earned his first of two hits, a grounder between second and third base. Busch Stadium erupted, as it did with everything involving the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, and MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt and All-Star Nolan Arenado were coming up.

Nola responded by striking out Goldschmidt with an 87-mph cutter high in the zone. He blew a 94-mph fastball by Arenado to finish the inning. It was the highlight sequence of his phenomenal start – the best and most important of his career.

“Execute and execute; that’s my main thing with those guys coming up with the whole lineup,” Nola said. “Execute my pitches, get ahead of them as best I could and try to expand after that. But they put together a couple good at-bats against me, but we got out of them.”

The roadmap to postseason success was clear for the Phillies. It started with Wheeler and Nola, who met or exceeded every realistic expectation. The duo combined to allow no runs on six hits, striking out 10 and walking one over 13 innings.

The Phillies couldn’t have asked more from the pairing, which outpitched every other top pitching duo thus far in the postseason, including Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom with the Mets. Their bullpen, for years maligned, also came through, especially in the eighth when Pujols was again in the middle of a potential rally.

Lars Nootbar walked and Pujols, in his final at-bat, smacked a ball down the third-base line that ricocheted off the wall for a single. The Cardinals were again positioned with Goldschmidt and Arenado up. Goldschmidt struck out on eight pitches against Seranthony Dominguez. Arenado struck out on four pitches.

The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 2-0 in Game 2 of an NL wild-card baseball playoff series Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in St. Louis. The Phillies advanced to the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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An alarming statistic entering the series, as first noted by Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia: Arenado and Goldschmidt were a combined 16-for-72 (.222) with zero homers and 14 strikeouts against Wheeler and Nola.

Their ineffectiveness continued this weekend, even beyond facing the aces. Goldschmidt and Arenado went 1-for-15 with eight strikeouts. Saturday was abysmal, with the pair going 0-for-8 with five strikeouts and stranding eight on base. The Cardinals left nine on base, including runners at the corners to end the game.

The Phillies, meanwhile, didn’t show their usual power – only one homer in 18 innings – but won behind their pitching. The lone homer came from the franchise’s most notable player: Bryce Harper.

Harper homered off Miles Mikolas in the second frame to give the Phillies an early lead. Harper went 0-for-3 Friday but walked and scored in the Phillies’ explosive ninth. He had two hits Saturday. Harper, the only man besides Tom Brady whose mere mention draws boos in Atlanta, will finally get his first crack at his long-time divisional nemesis in October.

His monstrous home run Saturday was a highlight the Phillies envisioned when they signed him to a 13-year, $330 million deal in 2019. These were his first two postseason contests with the Phillies, who last played such meaningful games during President Obama’s first term.

As for the Cardinals, it’s a disappointing end for Molina and Pujols, whose farewell tours had some believing the Cardinals, known for their October alchemy, had some magic left. The Red Birds weren’t mean to perch atop baseball’s peak, however, and instead fly into the offseason needing reinforcements. Pujols and Molina spoke with reporters after the game, with the latter declaring, “I’m going to be his brother forever.” Both players had hits in their final at-bats.

St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina is removed for a pinch-runner during the ninth inning in Game 2 of the team's NL wild-card baseball playoff series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in St. Louis. The Phillies won 2-0 and advanced to the NL Division Series. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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“Everybody in that clubhouse is feeling it right now,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “It’s a tough one. When you know it’s Yadi’s last year and Albert’s last year, there’s this extra motivation to deliver for them and do something special and allow that story to end with a championship. So it’s obviously disappointing, but it’s where we’re at.”

The Braves (101-61) wish this series went longer, exhausting more from the victor. They’ll miss the chance at repaying the Cardinals for the 2012 Wild Card Game – St. Louis sent Chipper Jones into retirement, and the Braves could’ve returned the favor here – and the 2019 NLDS, which was a disaster. But they’ll accept the Phillies and the advantages and challenges that come with familiarity.

“They do a lot of things well, but we also do a lot of things well,” Nola said. “And we’re definitely looking forward to that series.”

The Braves went 11-8 against the Phillies this season, most recently sweeping them at Truist Park and splitting four games in Philadelphia over a seven-game sample last month. The run differential, 88-85 in the Braves’ favor, was close despite the 14-win difference. The Braves are 35-32 against the Phillies since Harper signed his mega deal.

This week, the Braves will need to be better than the Phillies three out of five games to earn their third straight NLCS appearance.