Like Braves, the Phillies are better this time, too

PHILADELPHIA — The Braves unquestionably are better than they were a year ago. The Phillies believe the same applies to them.

“I think it’s a better team, but more importantly, it’s a more experienced team,” Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos said. “You can’t fake these experiences. No matter how talented you are, you can’t replicate a moment like the postseason, playing here in this stadium, feeling the electricity of the crowd. The fact we’ve all been down this road before, and now we start this journey again, we’re very present. We’re very focused on what we need to do.”

Since the Phillies ousted the Braves in four games during the 2022 National League Division Series, it’s felt destined for these teams to meet again. The Braves weren’t at full strength then – starters Max Fried and Spencer Strider, specifically – but any mention of that sounds like an excuse.

Ultimately, it was the Phillies’ year in the NL as they topped the Cardinals, Braves and Padres en route to the World Series. Then the Astros defeated them, thus setting up the Phillies’ own search for redemption in 2023.

Here we are again: The Braves and Phillies will face each other in the best-of-five NLDS beginning Saturday at Truist Park. Either the Braves will avenge their 2022 defeat and move toward another pennant, or the Phillies will continue their path back to the Fall Classic after eliminating their rival back-to-back seasons.

“We knew this matchup was a possibility from the beginning of the year,” Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel, formerly of Braves fame, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And here we are. Right where we want to be. We wish we were playing the first two games here, but we’ll go down to Atlanta and – we’ve played really close ballgames, especially of late against them. I expect it to be competitive ball, probably a lot of back and forth, I just hope we end up on top at the end of the series.”

This series might deserve to be on pay-per-view (then again, let’s not give MLB any ideas). The Phillies have casted some shade the Braves’ way this year, from manager Rob Thomson saying he prefers his players “act like they’ve been there before” in response to Ronald Acuña Jr.’s celebrations to ace Zack Wheeler (jokingly) referring to Acuña as “What’s his name? Acuña?” in September.

Boy, Acuña sure brings out the emotions. He and his teammates have already enjoyed interacting with the lively Philadelphia crowd that’s sure to be a factor as the series progresses. The comparisons with SEC atmospheres are fair; Citizens Bank Park is bonkers, though that won’t be new to the Braves after seeing it up close a year ago. The Phillies outscored the Braves 17-4 in two games in Philadelphia.

“I think we have one of the best home-field advantages in baseball,” Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm said. “I think, when you come here and you play here, I think how people say it’s difficult to play here and things like that, going through that type of stuff and learning how to play here, that just makes this time of year that much better, and I think prepares you for that.”

The Phillies will ride their aces, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, along with a filthy bullpen. The dual aces held the Marlins to one run over 13-2/3 innings, while the staff surrendered only two runs over two games. From Jose Alvarado to Jeff Hoffman to Orion Kerkering to Kimbrel, this isn’t the old Phillies bullpen.

The Braves’ offense arguably has been the greatest in history, but the postseason essentially is a new season. Phillies pitchers quieted the Braves’ lineup a year ago in this spot.

Outfielder Michael Harris was 1-for-14. Third baseman Austin Riley was 1-for-15. Outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario each were 0-for-8. The Braves scored 13 runs across four games. The good results: first baseman Matt Olson was 4-for-12 with two homers. Acuña was 5-for-15, while Orlando Arcia – then replacing the injured Ozzie Albies and now the starting shortstop – was 3-for-10 with a home run. Acuña and Olson have had the best seasons of their careers and will have high expectations for this series.

The 2022 stats might end up irrelevant, but they’re a reminder of how quickly a season can transform. The Rays started 20-3, won 99 games and then scored one run over the 18 innings that mattered this week. Their season ended in two days, two losses at Tropicana Field where they’d been tied for best home winning percentage.

The Braves’ marvelous season resets now. The 307 home runs, Olson’s records, Acuña’s (likely) MVP, Strider’s strikeouts; none of it matters at present. The Braves must find that success all over again as the sport shifts into a different form.

That’s why there’s buzz for the Phillies. They won 90 games opposed to 87 last year, but all that matters was they qualified. They’re like an NBA team that’s built more for the playoffs than the lengthy regular season. The Phillies don’t seem to have the killer instinct that the Braves display during the summer, but they extract the most out of themselves in fall.

“The one thing the Braves did is they played consistent baseball all year long,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said regarding the 14-win gap between the clubs. “From day one, they really didn’t go into any large losing streak that I know of, and we struggled getting out of the gate, so it’s something we’ve got to work on in spring training. But I think we’re playing very good baseball right now, and I think it’s going to be a really good series.”

It begins at 6:07 p.m. Saturday at Truist Park.