Rematch: Braves will face Phillies in National League Division Series again

PHILADELPHIA – The Braves will get their chance at revenge against the Phillies, who look like October darlings again.

After an 18-inning, two-day tune-up, the Phillies (90-72) earned their rematch with the Braves (104-58). The teams will face off in the best-of-five National League Division Series after the Phillies eliminated the Marlins with a 7-1 victory Wednesday to sweep the Wild Card Series.

This will be the third time the Braves and Phillies, interdivisional foes since 1994, have faced each other in the postseason. The Phillies won both previous meetings, defeating the Braves in six games during the 1993 National League Championship Series and eliminating the reigning champions in four games last October in the NLDS.

Since that series, it’s felt destined these teams would cross paths while seeking redemption. The Braves want to avenge their ousting last fall and win their second title in three years. The Phillies want to return to the World Series and win it this time.

“Atlanta is really good,” Phillies first baseman Bryce Harper said. “They’re one of the best teams in baseball. They have really good hitting, an unbelievable lineup. Three hundred homers this year, that’s incredible. It’s going to be fun. It’s exciting. It’s going to be an electric series and we can’t wait.”

The stage is set. And the Phillies didn’t expend much energy getting it ready.

When the Phillies swept the Cardinals out of the Wild Card Series in 2022, they appeared to have mojo. They had moxie. They looked and felt like a team ready to exceed expectations after missing the postseason for 11 consecutive seasons. This time, they displayed the same characteristics as confident favorites, comfortably defeating the overmatched Marlins.

Who provided the first spark Wednesday? It was former top Braves prospect Cristian Pache, who’s settled into a nice role with the Phillies against southpaws. Pache had a .375 on-base percentage in 57 plate appearances against lefties during the regular season. He started both games against Miami in left field, reaching base in both.

Pache drew a lead-off walk off Marlins lefty Braxton Garrett in the third inning. Designated hitter Kyle Schwarber smacked a ball down the first-base line at 111-mph, scoring Pache for the game’s first run. Schwarber scored on shortstop Trea Turner’s ensuing single – this one just 96 mph off the bat – to make it 2-0.

Garrett went only three innings. The Marlins had gone 21-9 in his starts, including 2-0 against the Phillies (though Garrett had a 5.40 ERA over 10 innings in those games) entering the night.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto hammered the Phillies’ first homer of the series in the ensuing inning off David Robertson. Second baseman Bryson Stott blasted a grand slam that put the game out of reach in the sixth, sending Citizens Bank Park into a euphoric state, but it didn’t feel like the Marlins had much of a chance even before that.

Last year, the Phillies dominated the Cardinals behind aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. It was the Marlins’ turn this week. Wheeler’s stupendous pitching led the way in Game 1. He allowed one run on six hits over 6-2/3 innings, striking out eight without any walks. Nola followed, pitching seven scoreless innings. He allowed three hits, struck out three and walked one.

“Wheels started it off for me,” Nola said. “He gets the job done Game 1 and I try to follow his lead in Game 2. He set the tone last night and I just got to follow that up.”

Nola ran into potential trouble three times and escaped with a caught stealing and two double plays. He looked more like the pitcher he’s accustomed to being rather than the up-and-down performer that 4.46 ERA in the regular season.

Miami had handled Nola well previously. He had a 6.75 ERA in three starts against them, giving up five homers (on 24 hits) in 16 innings. Compare that with his numbers against the magnificent Braves offense: A 3.50 ERA in three starts, surrendering three homers (on 16 hits) across 18 innings. It’s clear the Marlins had his number – until they didn’t.

Wheeler and Nola combined to allow one run on eight hits over 13-2/3 innings against Miami. They struck out 11 and walked one. Miami scored only two runs across two games, also stifled by the Phillies’ bullpen. The star-studded lineup gets most of the attention, but for the Phillies to surge deep into October, their pitching must perform similarly to the past couple days.

“The two guys who pitched in this series were as expected,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “That’s what they do. They shut people down. They’re big-game pitchers.”

Marlins manager Skip Schumaker, asked about the biggest difference between these two teams: “Wheeler and Nola. Those guys are going to haunt my dreams.”

The Phillies’ homefield advantage lived up to its billing, too. They went 5-0 at home to reach the World Series last year (the Astros took two in Philadelphia during the Fall Classic) and now begin this run 2-0. The Braves know how challenging the Citizens Bank Park environment can be: They lost both NLDS games here last season, getting outscored 17-4. The comparisons to an SEC football atmosphere aren’t far-fetched.

“The vibes,” Harper said when asked what makes the Phillies so good in October. “We have such good vibes with our fans, the city. It’s just a blast. We all love doing this. We know we’re a really good team. We just have to continue to do that.”

As for the other side, it was an abrupt end to the Marlins’ best season in 20 years. If someone told you in March that the NL East would again have three postseason participants, the Marlins wouldn’t have been mentioned. But their team showed exceptional resiliency, overcoming injuries and trying stretches – along with a historically poor run differential for a playoff team (minus-55) – to reach 84 wins, which was good enough to finish ahead of more talented clubs and earn entry into the dance. Phillies players praised the Marlins for playing them tough throughout the year (the Marlins were 7-6 against Philadelphia before this series).

It’s not like this team rolled through the second half, either. Miami went 31-38 after the All-Star break. On top of that, present ace Sandy Alcantara and future ace Eury Perez were injured and weren’t seen this week. If those two were healthy, maybe the Marlins would’ve been considered lively underdogs rather than fodder. Alcantara, though he didn’t have his finest year, is the reigning Cy Young winner. Perez, only 20, looks like the next great thing and a pitcher who’ll give the Braves fits for years.

“Most projections had us at probably less than 10 percent for making the playoffs,” Schumaker said. “I think the culture changed. I believe that there’s a new standard in that clubhouse now. Now it’s up to them to protect that standard, honestly.”

The Marlins have an important offseason ahead in which they’ll need to address their offense (specifically shortstop). Slugger Jorge Soler will likely opt out of his deal in hopes of a better one. The NL East won’t get any easier – expect the Mets to retool and the Nationals to continue their organic growth – and the Marlins are likely already staring at some form of regression given how they’d outperformed their peripherals.

Braves fans were rooting for undermanned Miami this week. The Phillies are commonly viewed as perhaps the Braves’ greatest threat. At the very least, they’re a team capable of hanging with any juggernaut. The Marlins would’ve felt more like a minor inconvenience on the way to the National League Championship Series.

The baseball world is getting what any objective observer probably wanted. This NLDS has the potential to be a sensational series. The stars, the power, the strikeouts, the fan bases, the history, the stakes; there are all sorts of juicy storylines.

“There are no secrets about who we are as teams,” Schwarber said. “We know who they are. They know who we are. It’s going to be a dog fight, there’s no doubt about that. We’re going to enjoy (Wednesday night), but we’re going to be excited to get out there to Atlanta and start the series.”

The Braves and Phillies begin part 2 on Saturday at Truist Park.

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