When the Braves’ chief National League East challenger is based in Queens, we always assume the Mets will find a way to flop. The Phillies are made from stronger stuff. Yes, the Braves went 8-5 against Philadelphia this season, but two careening September series were instructive. The Braves scored 41 runs in winning four of seven games; Philly scored 38 runs.
The Braves were – and until proven otherwise, are – baseball’s best team. Because Philly’s the opponent and this is best-of-five, the NLDS figures to be their toughest test. The Braves finished 14 games ahead of the Phillies, but the latter took forever to get going. On June 2, Philly was 25-32 and tied with Washington for last in in the East. That would change.
Coming off Tommy John surgery, Bryce Harper didn’t return until May and spent most of the season as a DH. Rhys Hoskins was lost to a knee injury in spring training. Trea Turner, signed away from the Dodgers for $300 million over 11 seasons, ended July with a batting average of .242 and an OPS of .673. Aaron Nola started badly and finished with an ERA of 4.46. Zack Wheeler had his worst season since 2019.
Turner was himself again in August and September. He went 4-for-7 in Round 1 against the Fish. Nola closed the regular season with two quality starts and worked seven scoreless innings in Wednesday’s closeout Game 2. Wheeler won Game 1.
Not so long ago, the way to beat the Phillies was to match their starters and make hay against the bullpen. That’s outdated info. Philadelphia’s relievers were sixth-best among MLB teams in ERA – the Braves’ bullpen was 10th – and third-best in FanGraphs WAR. Miami managed one run and four hits in 4-1/3 innings this week.
(Philly’s closer is Craig Kimbrel, who’s not what he was. Still, even at 35, he’s Craig Kimbrel.)
Any best-of-five is scary for the better seed. Split the first two games and you mightn’t play another home game until April. The nice thing about being the better seed is that you start fresh with your best pitchers. A year ago, the Phillies used Wheeler in Game 2 versus the Braves on four days rest. He was outpitched by Kyle Wright. Owing to Sunday’s off-day, Wheeler will be available for Game 2 on five days rest.
If you’re the Phillies, you like your chances. They negotiated this path last year and played into November. As good as the 2022 Braves were – and they were very good, having improved by 13 wins over their championship selves – this bunch is better. The Phillies finished fourth in the NL in runs, but it was a distant fourth. The Braves outscored them by 151 runs.
There’s good hitting, and then there’s Braves hitting. The Phillies don’t have this lineup. Nobody else has this lineup. The Sunday off-day makes it possible for the Braves to deploy Strider and, blister willing, Fried twice each on full rest. That’s a big deal.
Philly is a daunting Round 2 opponent. The Braves, it must be said, are pretty imposing themselves. They’ll win in five.
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