Frustration and disappointment belong again to the Braves and their millions of supporters.
“It sucks,” first baseman Matt Olson said. “We didn’t have a four-game stretch like that all year, it felt like.”
Coming up well short of the goal after a historically successful season is an ache that tends to linger.
“It’s tough,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It takes a while to get over something like this after the year we had, the expectation we have here.”
Snitker and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos preside over a powerhouse, a team stocked with All-Stars signed to long-term contracts. Even after his team faltered, third baseman Austin Riley spoke with well-placed confidence in the Braves’ competitiveness in seasons to come.
“Keep sticking with us,” he said, speaking to fans. “We’re really good. We really are. This game’s crazy. I expect to be back at this point next year, and hopefully we’re on the other side of this.”
For all the achievements of the season, though, the Braves have a hurdle that they don’t know how to clear. In back-to-back regular seasons, they have finished 14 games ahead of the Phillies. But the club from Philadelphia has ousted them from the postseason in a manner that has left no doubt about which team deserved to keep playing. The Phillies “stifled us,” Snitker said Thursday night after the series was over.
The search for answers begins. Last year’s NLDS loss to the Phillies, part of the first postseason in which the wild-card round was best-of-three as opposed to a single game, compelled Snitker to search for a solution for his team’s rust from the layoff during the wild-card series. This year, as his team prepped for the NLDS during the wild-card round, Snitker held intrasquad games to keep players sharper. The Braves even invited fans to attend to add energy to the rehearsals. The result – the Braves performed even worse at the plate this postseason than last.
The Braves weren’t alone. The Dodgers had trouble, too, as they lost to an inferior wild-card entrant for the second year in a row, this year batting .177 and scoring six runs in three games. (The Braves hit .186 and hit three home runs to the Phillies’ 11.) American League top-seed Baltimore also was ousted, by fifth-seeded Texas in three games.
But was the layoff the actual culprit?
The Astros had the same break as the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles, but are going back to the AL Championship Series after hitting .261 with 10 home runs in their ALDS win over Minnesota, which played in the wild-card round. A year ago, the Astros and Yankees both won their ALDS rounds despite the same layoffs that supposedly submarined the Braves and Dodgers this year and last.
The NLDS underperformance of the probable top-four NL MVP candidates – the Braves’ Olson and Acuña and the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts – was offered as more supporting evidence of the impact of the time off. The four stars were an improbable 7-for-51 (.137), with only one extra-base hit among them, a double by Acuña.
Clearly the layoff prevented fans from seeing the best players at their best, right?
But then why did the same four players hit 16-for-55 (.291) with three home runs in last year’s NLDS round with the same layoff?
“I’m not going to say that’s an excuse for us,” Snitker said. “I look at the Astros. It didn’t bother them.”
Do the Braves need a more dynamic and forceful leader like the Phillies have with Bryce Harper? A theory is that the Braves are an even-keeled lot, a temperament that serves them well over a 162-game schedule but not as much when the intensity and pressure rise in the playoffs. Perhaps a player with an edge could lift the Braves, as Joc Pederson did for them in the 2021 World Series title season.
Harper has indeed owned the Braves the past two NLDS rounds, going 14-for-29 with five home runs, and perhaps inspired his teammates. His WWE-worthy glare at Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia during his two home-run trots in Game 3 – retribution for Arcia’s sin of making light of Harper’s costly base-running decision in Game 2 in the Braves clubhouse – will be the enduring image of the series.
But that might be simplistic. Harper’s style didn’t help him or his team last year in his first World Series appearance, when he was 4-for-20 in the Phillies’ six-game loss to Houston. A dominating pitching staff, such as Houston’s, has a way of doing that.
That hints at another Braves shortcoming this postseason. Kyle Wright, who won 21 games last season and earned the victory in the Braves’ only NLDS win over the Phillies that year, missed the NLDS with a shoulder injury that will sideline him for 2024. Max Fried had appeared to regain his ace form before a blister on his index finger put him on the 15-day injured list in September. But, in his first game back since, he was not at his best in Game 2 on Monday.
Dependable Charlie Morton missed the NLDS with a finger sprain. Only Strider, who in both of his two NLDS starts gave his team a chance to win, was fully ready. It’s not unreasonable to think one more fully healthy starter besides Strider from that quartet, to say nothing of two, would have given the Braves a better chance against the Phillies.
Snitker surely will examine his decision making, starting with leaving in Bryce Elder in Game 3 when he started to falter in the decisive third inning and the Phillies scored six runs.
As for the Citizens Bank Park crowd? There’s not much the Braves can do about the clear lift that fans give the Phillies there (other than playing better, of course).
Regardless, Snitker and Anthopoulos go into the offseason trying to address how their team can outlast the one that finished well behind theirs in the regular season but demolished their team when it counted most. On Thursday night, Snitker’s deliberations had only begun.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
Humility is a good place to start.