Bradley’s Buzz: This series will come down to the Phillies’ bullpen



In today’s AJC, yours truly suggested that folks should be of good cheer regarding the Braves, who trail the NLDS 1-0. What we saw Tuesday serves as the basis of that belief. The Phillies’ bullpen was left with 6-2/3 innings to cover, which is a lot. It was also handed a five-run lead. Final score: Phillies 7, Braves 6.

If you’re a Philly fan, your response is, “We’ve got Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola going in Games 2 and 3 – they’re not apt to be pulled in the fourth inning.” True. But a playoff series almost always comes down to bullpens. I’m not sure Philadelphia’s can hold up.

Over the regular season, Philly relievers ranked 23rd in the majors in ERA. FIP (fielding independent pitching) was kinder: They ranked 12th. The Braves were fourth and third, respectively.

Corey Knebel led the Phillies with 12 saves; he’s on the injured list with a bad shoulder. David Robertson will miss this series, having strained his calf celebrating Bryce Harper’s home run in Game 2 of Round 1. Zach Eflin, a starter by trade, has become the closer by default; he entered the postseason with one career save.

Seranthony Dominguez was forced to work the sixth inning in Game 1, surely sooner than Philly manager Rob Thomson wanted. But Ranger Suarez needed 86 pitches to retire 10 batters. Connor Brogdon faced five hitters in the fifth, retiring one.

The day’s second-biggest play came when Brad Hand replaced Brogdon: one out, two runs in, runners on first and second. Michael Harris sent a screamer into right-center.

Per Baseball Savant, the expected batting average on such a ball is .400. Center fielder Matt Vierling, making like The Freeze, ran it down.

Dominguez and Jose Alvarado got the Phillies through the sixth, seventh and eighth with aplomb – no hits, no walks, four strikeouts. Eflin entered in the ninth. Ronald Acuna singled to left. Exit velocity: 97.4 mph. Dansby Swanson, finally putting the ball in play, singled off the right-field fence. EV: 102.9. Matt Olson homered to dead center. EV: 105.7. The Braves were within a run, two outs to go.

Cue the game’s biggest play. William Contreras sent a sinking liner into right field. Expected batting average: .460. Right fielder Nick Castellanos made a diving catch. If the ball skips past him, the tying run is at least in scoring position with one out, maybe at third base. Castellanos, not known for glovework, snagged it. Travis d’Arnaud grounded out to end it.

In April, the Wall Street Journal ran a story bearing the headline: “The Baseball Team Trying to Prove That Defense Doesn’t Win Championships.” That team was the Phillies. They weren’t quite as awful as advertised. According to Fielding Bible, they finished 25th among 30 MLB clubs in defensive runs saved. (The Braves were 11th. The top four – Yankees, Dodgers, Guardians and Astros – are still playing.) Philly’s DRS for center field was minus-7. For right field, it was minus-9.

Which only goes to show: Players sometimes make plays you figure they shouldn’t. To borrow Joe Trimble’s immortal line in the New York Daily News on Oct. 9, 1956: “The imperfect man pitched the perfect game.” Over his career, Don Larsen’s record was 81-91. That day in Yankee Stadium, he faced 27 Dodgers, retired 27 Dodgers.

My point, sort of: I’m not sure the Phillies will make such catches in the days ahead, nor am I sure Eflin can withstand ninth innings that don’t spot him a four-run lead. (He didn’t get a save Tuesday. Game wasn’t close enough when he entered.)

Game 2 awaits, weather permitting. Kyle Wright against Wheeler.

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