The Braves’ last trip to Philadelphia carries a much different vibe than the first.
It was here the Braves began their 2019 season, getting pummeled by the new-look Phillies who appeared ready to dethrone the reigning division champs. The Braves opened the season in an almost-immediate three-game hole.
On Monday, they returned to Philadelphia with 19 games remaining and a 14-game lead over the third-place Phillies (74-68). They’ve swung 17 games since that dreadful debut. And the Phillies, for the second season in a row, find themselves jostling for a postseason berth as the Braves run away with the East.
The Phillies outpitched, outhit and outpowered the Braves in the first series. Since then, the Braves have shown better chemistry, better pitching and better hitting (certainly better power, with these Braves on track to break the franchise’s single-season homer record).
“It’s crazy,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It flies when you start winning. A couple years ago it was a long season. But it’s great. I couldn’t picture it any better. Going through the downs made this so much better. I don’t see us coming down for a long time in this organization. This organization is built to last for a long time.”
The Phillies are again searching for answers. They’ll likely throw money at the problem this winter, as they should with their payroll capabilities, but they simply haven’t kept up with the Braves’ and Nationals’ pitching depth.
As it turns out, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ oft-invoked wisdom regarding “winning the offseason” turned true. He’d had flashy winters that didn’t translate on the field, which lessened his temptation to go big last offseason.
The Phillies, meanwhile, went ultra-aggressive on the free-agent and trade markets. They’ve been hurt by misfortune, including Andrew McCutchen’s injury, but their spending didn’t become immediate success because they fell shy in the game’s most important aspect: pitching.
“It starts with pitching,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said of his team’s recent play. “It’s always going to start with pitching. Guys are shoving. They’ve been executing their pitch, and we have a dangerous lineup and really good bullpen so we’re in a good spot.”
There’s the blueprint for Philadelphia’s winter. There will be ample opportunities to boost the rotation and bullpen, though that’s always easier said than done.
In the present day, as the Braves begin their last series in Philadelphia this season, they sit comfortably with a nine-game lead in the National League East. The Phillies are two games behind the Cubs for the second wild card spot.
And so the Braves, who’ve won 17 of 20 games, will directly affect the Phillies’ wild-card odds this week. It should be easy for the Braves to keep their sense of urgency, given their opponent is fighting for their playoff lives.
“We know we have three weeks left,” Freeman said. “We know we have a big lead but we still have to take care of business and close this thing out as fast as we can.”
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