After layoff, Braves are overpowered by Phillies pitchers

Braves manager Brian Snitker may or may not unearth the solution for leading his team past the Phillies in the National League Division Series. But it looks like he can cross “intrasquad games’ off the list as a possible answer.

Unable to keep up with the velocity unleashed by a flamethrowing parade of Philadelphia pitchers, the Braves were made to look uncommonly common Saturday night. The team that tied the major-league record for home runs in a season and broke the all-time record for team slugging percentage was held scoreless in Truist Park for the first time since August 2021.

Phillies 3, Braves 0, fan anxiety level 90/100.

It’s one game, but falling behind 1-0 and losing home-field advantage in the five-game NLDS is a bit of a boulder to carry.

“I think the biggest thing is we’ve just got to come in (Sunday, an off day) and do our work and not try to put too much pressure on ourselves,” third baseman Austin Riley said. “I think that can happen in big situations, big moments and the playoffs.”

After succumbing last year to the same Phillies in last year’s NLDS, Snitker and the Braves brain trust landed upon the plan to stay sharp with a series of scrimmages during the layoff this past week during the wild-card round. Reactions from Snitker and players Friday and pre-game Saturday indicated that playing in game-like conditions – even inviting fans into the park – had served its purpose.

It may not have been a bad idea, but it evidently wasn’t enough. Game-like conditions may not have included 99 mile-per-hour sinkers, such as the one that Riley struck out on with two out and two on in the bottom of the fifth against Seranthony Dominguez.

“The guy’s throwing 100, he’s got a four-seam (fastball) with some cut and a sinker,” Riley said. “The last pitch on me, it had some crazy (break). At that point, you can’t try to hit both. I just saw the ball up and was thinking four-seam and it was a good pitch. I didn’t capitalize on it. (I) had some pitches earlier in the count that, if I’m on time, probably square the ball up.”

Any number of theories can be entertained about why and how the Braves failed to push across a single run against the Phillies, who themselves hadn’t shut out an opponent since late August – pressure, Snitker’s decision to change up the lineup (including moving Riley up to second from third), the distraction caused by Phillies left fielder (and Buford High grad) Brandon Marsh’s impressively tangled head of hair.

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Ranger Suarez during second inning of Game 1 of the NLDS at Truist Park in Atlanta on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.  (Hyosub Shin /


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However, the most logical would seem to be that a) the Braves hadn’t faced live pitching since last Sunday; b) Phillies starter Ranger Suarez and the six relievers who followed him out of the bullpen in a high-velocity conga line were at the top of their game.

“I don’t know how many pitchers we used, but that many guys being on in one night is very hard to do, especially against a lineup that good,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said.

They owned the key moments of the game, as the Braves were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. In the bottom of the fifth with the Braves down 1-0, Orlando Arcia and Eddie Rosario both sharply singled off Dominguez to put runners on first and third with one out.

The next two batters up were likely MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. and Riley. That’s a combined 78 home runs and 203 RBIs this season. Surely, the game was about to swing towards the team with the best record in baseball. But Dominguez struck out Acuna looking with a 98-mph fastball on the inside edge of the strike zone and then took care of Riley next with the aforementioned divebombing sinker.

“Those two strikeouts changed the entire game for me because it kept the momentum on our side, it kept the score where it was at,” said Realmuto. “That was a big spot for ‘Ser.’”

It was evidence again of the value of a bullpen that can bring heat, particularly in the playoffs. The Braves recognized it by including reliever Daysbel Hernandez on the NLDS roster despite the fact that he hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since July 31. Hernandez can hit 98 with his fastball and has a nasty slider to match.

Unfortunately for the Braves, they’ll face the same bullpen Monday on a day’s rest and then Wednesday in Philadelphia after another day of rest. Realmuto said after Saturday’s game that manager Rob Thomson told him beforehand that, with those off days, “we’re going to manage this one like it’s a do-or-die game. We have our whole bullpen available so if something gets hairy early in the game, don’t be surprised if we make a move.”

For the Braves, the more hopeful facet of this matchup is that, as Realmuto said, it’s not often that every pitcher comes out of the bullpen as dialed in as the Phillies relievers were Saturday. Philadelphia’s bullpen was among the best in baseball this season, but its ERA wasn’t 0.00. (It was 3.56, sixth lowest in the majors.)

And, if it was cobwebs that the Braves needed to clear, they’re likely swept away now. And it wasn’t as though the Braves lineup was swinging limply for nine innings. They squared up a number of pitches, just not enough that Philadelphia couldn’t catch and none that reached the outfield seats.

“They brought out some good pitchers,” center fielder Michael Harris II said. “They hit their spots. They did what they needed to do in certain situations and I guess it’s just something that we’ll try to fix in the next outing.”

Probability would suggest that Game 2 will go better for the Braves on Monday, although Phillies starter (and East Paulding High grad) Zack Wheeler has had success against them in his career (3.18 ERA in 27 starts).

All is not lost yet for the Braves, just Game 1, although that’s not a small matter.

“I trust everybody in this clubhouse and would go to war with any of these guys,” Riley said. “It’s just a matter of trusting our stuff, be in the moment, not try to do too much.”

But they’d better do a lot more than they did Saturday night.