‘I’m speechless’: Braves grapple with season ending long before they expected

The Braves' Ronald Acuna strikes out against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The Braves' Ronald Acuna strikes out against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA – Inside a somber clubhouse Saturday, Dansby Swanson, head hung, embraced Kenley Jansen. Michael Harris, with his head down, sat facing his locker and looked at his phone. A bit further down that row of lockers, a small group of players chatted. All around the room, coaches, players and staff members said goodbye to one another for the final time this season.

“I mean, I don’t really know,” Harris said of his emotions. “I’m speechless.”

“It sucks,” Swanson said. “That’s it.”

“Obviously we’re upset,” Matt Olson said.

In those moments, the Braves tried to process what had occurred in the hours that preceded the sad scene. They grappled with the pain, disappointment and frustration of the reality they faced. They know how wild October can be, how you can never take anything for granted, how it all can end in the blink of an eye.

They did not expect this: They were eliminated from the postseason with an 8-3 loss to the Phillies in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park. They lost the best-of-five series 3-1, ending their season – a painful realization for everyone who worked so hard to ensure the Braves were the final team standing for the second year in a row.

When the Braves arrived at spring training in March, they envisioned hoisting the World Series trophy again. They had the talent. They had the experience. And in the months that followed, they put together a magical run in which they overcame the largest deficit to win a division title in franchise history. They had all the ingredients, but the desired result eluded them.

“Just kind of sucked it had to end this way,” Kyle Wright said.

As Travis d’Arnaud settled into the batter’s box for what became the final at-bat of the 2022 Braves’ season, manager Brian Snitker watched from his usual spot in the dugout. Swanson and Olson sat behind him, and others looked on as d’Arnaud saw the final pitches of a promising year that didn’t end as anyone in Atlanta had hoped.

When d’Arnaud struck out swinging, the crowd erupted. The Phillies celebrated. Meanwhile, some in the Braves dugout stayed to watch. One was reliever Collin McHugh, who always does this when his team finds itself in these situations.

“I want to remember what that feels like,” McHugh said. “Because it is motivation. It’s motivation to look at it and say, ‘It was an incredible year and there’s always more work to be done.’”

The Braves soon will get past the sting of losing to see the positives. They won 101 games. They captured a fifth consecutive NL East crown, the longest run of division titles in the sport. They have a young core. From team accomplishments to personal achievements, they have a ton of which to be proud.

They will remember this group fondly.

“The resiliency, how these guys kept fighting like they always do, how we were kind of treading water there for a long time, and then they got it going,” Snitker said of what he would remember most about this bunch.

“We just had fun and battled,” Harris said. “We just created a tight bond throughout the whole season.”

For the Braves, the pain came when they looked around the room. Swanson, the team’s unquestioned leader, will be a free agent, as will Jansen. Others could depart, and new faces could arrive.

“This team means a lot to me,” McHugh said. “To be able to play here and play in Atlanta for this team, with that across your chest, it means a lot. This team – I mean, I could go around the entire locker room and each guy, I could say something different about each person and how they’ve contributed this year and made this team what it is. We don’t have all day from that.”

McHugh became a do-it-all reliever, looking as advertised. Swanson had a career year. Austin Riley played like the NL MVP for a few months. Harris, Spencer Strider and Vaughn Grissom electrified the group in their rookie seasons. Wright was one of MLB’s breakout stars, authoring a career turnaround. And on and on.

From June 1 through the end of the regular season, the Braves looked unbeatable. They went 78-34 over that span. They caught, passed and swept the Mets. But they ran into a hot Phillies team, one that might remind you of the 2021 Braves.

It provided yet another example of what everyone around this sport universally accepts: In October, the previous months go out the window. It’s about who’s hot, not who achieved the most in the regular season.

“They outplayed us,” Swanson said. “Outhit us, outpitched us. They were better this series.”

“I’m never going to make excuses,” Snitker said. “We got outplayed this series.”

As Saturday’s game progressed, it became clear the Phillies would not implode. They earned this. Their starting pitchers performed better. Their lineup collected more timely hits. Their bullpen, for the most part, shut down a dangerous Braves offense.

Swanson, Riley, Harris and many others struggled at the plate in this series. Max Fried, Strider and Charlie Morton didn’t turn in good starts. The Braves will regret a lot about this series for a couple of days, maybe even longer, before they can focus on the positives of this season.

“Feel like it sits with me a long time,” Swanson said. “I hate losing. And when it’s something of this magnitude, it obviously hurts that much more. You have months to think about it. You hope that this feeling never happens again.”

Multiple times Saturday, as the Phillies stepped on the Braves’ throats, fans here mocked the Braves by doing their chant. Eventually, the Phillies jumped around on the field because they had punched a ticket to the NL Championship Series, sending the Braves home in the process.

The Braves won’t forget this.

“Seeing their fans do our chant while we were on the field losing definitely kind of builds a fire inside of you,” said Harris, the Atlanta-area native who grew up loving the Braves. “It’s a lot of motivation going into next season, and I’m just looking to improve.”

“I think we should definitely be proud of what we accomplished this year,” Wright said, “but at the same time, (this will) hopefully drive that hunger a little bit more for next year.”

Eventually, the Braves will reflect on their accomplishments and the magic they believed surrounded this team. No doubt, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos will work to position his organization to continue contending. The Braves almost certainly will be back.

None of that helps the Braves or their fans at the moment.

Right now, it’s only pain. The wounds are fresh.

The Braves, who spent the last year on top of the baseball world, are feeling the heartbreak that comes with a season ending long before anyone had expected.

“For every loser, there’s a winner,” McHugh said. “For every winner, there’s people who have some heartache to go through.”