This time, Braves were part of someone else’s storybook run

PHILADELPHIA – The 2021 Braves were meant to be. The 2022 Braves were perhaps meant to be a steppingstone in another underdog story. Either way, the Braves faced the harsh reality lived by so many reigning champions before them.

There will be another team hoisting a championship banner. The World Series trophy will be touring another city and region. Some other fan base will forever cherish moments such as Tyler Matzek’s awe-inspiring inning or Jorge Soler’s moon shot.

This year, the Braves experienced what the Brewers, Dodgers and Astros endured last fall. The Braves were better than the Phillies for seven months. But they weren’t better in this series, seeing the third-place club in their own division spoil their repeat effort. The Braves bowed out of the postseason in four games, losing Game 4 of the National League Division Series to Philadelphia 8-3 on Saturday. The Phillies advanced to the NL Championship Series. Braves players will begin formulating their holiday plans.

Consider this another testament to baseball’s unpredictability over these weeks. The Braves were 48-28 against the NL East during the season. They were 11-8 against the Phillies. As it turns out, they still fell two NLDS victories short.

“Well, we ran into a really hot team, pretty much,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They were hitting on all cylinders. They were playing great baseball. They got big hits. They shut us down offensively, and I think all the credit goes to the Phillies. They came in here, they got hot at the right time and played a heck of a series.”

This wasn’t a what-if series like their 2019 loss to the Cardinals or 2020 loss to the Dodgers. It was a butt-whipping. The Phillies thoroughly outplayed the Braves. The 14-win difference between the clubs meant nothing. The regular-season run differential – 88-85 in the Braves’ favor – suggested these teams were closer head-to-head, but there weren’t any true indications to how this week would unfold.

The Braves’ bats went ice cold. They scored 13 runs over four games. Three came on Matt Olson’s window-dressing three-run shot at the end of Game 1. Aside from that, they scored 10 runs over the other 35 innings. They didn’t lead in three of the four games. They held an advantage in only four innings of the series (all in Game 3, their lone victory).

As for the pitching, Max Fried, coming off the flu, couldn’t complete four innings in Game 1. Spencer Strider, coming off an oblique injury, couldn’t complete three frames in Game 3. Charlie Morton lasted two innings in Game 4, leaving not long after getting struck in the elbow by a line drive.

In the two games at Citizens Bank Park, the Braves’ bullpen surrendered nine earned runs. The Phillies’ bullpen, perpetually criticized, allowed only two.

“They outplayed us, outhit us, outpitched us,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “They were better in this series.”

In Game 4, outfielder Brandon Marsh, who had a .384 slugging percentage in the regular season, cranked a three-run homer off Morton. The Phillies’ defense, usually suspect, was pristine. There were balls dropping in favorable spots. Their bullpen game plan - those are often ripe to explode - worked perfectly.

Bryce Harper, the man who once dragged his foot across the “A” at Turner Field, beautifully played his role as Braves arch-nemesis. This might finally be the October the two-time MVP has sought – he’s hitting .435 in six postseason games. He was spectacular in this Division Series, capping his performance with a solo shot in the eighth inning of Game 4.

Michael Harris, the Braves’ rookie phenom, had a forgettable series, going 1-for-14. On Saturday, he couldn’t snag a ball struck by J.T. Realmuto that bounced off the center wall and rolled past him, resulting in an inside-the-park home run. Right fielder Ronald Acuna, another Brave who underwhelmed this week, was late reacting to the ball.

When your catcher has an inside-the-park home run, the game is going your way. When opposing Braves All-Stars Swanson and Austin Riley combine to go 3-for-31 with 12 strikeouts, the series is going your way.

“They threw the ball really well and got timely hits,” Riley said of the Phillies. “That’s what it comes down to in the postseason. They got the timely hits, the big hits, and threw the ball well.”

Remember how this Phillies’ run began? They didn’t clinch a postseason berth until the final series of the regular season in Houston. Then they went to St. Louis to face the Cardinals, the sorcerers of dark magic. They won consecutive games to retire Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina.

A confident, free-yet-intense mindset took over the club. The Phillies won only 87 games, but that doesn’t tell the story. They played at a near 96-win pace after firing manager Joe Giradi following a 22-29 start. Winning 96 still would have been worth only third place in the stacked NL East, but it’s more representative of the Phillies in current form.

Suddenly, the Phillies are overflowing with moxie, which sounds a lot like the team Atlanta came to adore last October, that personality and mojo. Philadelphia is wrapping its arms around a team that months ago was MLB’s Bad News Bears. Even listening to their manager sounds familiar.

“Probably just how resilient they are,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said, who like Snitker was a catcher and long-time minor-league coach. “I can’t say it enough. We had some tough losses, and they come back the next day, and it doesn’t snowball. They keep going, moving forward. They know that tomorrow is a new day, let’s go. It’s a really neat group that way.”

Snitker’s take when asked if he saw parallels between the 2021 Braves and 2022 Phillies: “A little bit. They’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time. It’s a good club. They’ve got really good players, and they’re getting it going at the right time.”

Time and again, postseason baseball tests what one thinks they know about this silly game. Every year, spectators remember there aren’t enough statistics in existence to project how the postseason develops.

The Phillies are the latest exhibit. They were a complete afterthought for the entirety of that great NL East race. And yet, the Braves and Mets sit at home while the Phillies ready to face a southern California powerhouse to decide a World Series berth.

Could they ride this wave the whole way and make it the second consecutive year that an NL East team stuns the baseball landscape?

“It’s tough to say,” Riley said. “They’re a really good club. I said it last year, when we were making our run, it doesn’t matter on paper who is the best team. It’s the team that gets hot at the right time. Who knows? They’re hot right now, and time will tell.”