Tuesday’s Game 1 went thud fast. The Phillies, who weren’t supposed to beat St. Louis in Round 1, led 2-0 after one inning, 4-0 after three and 6-1 after four. It’s never a good sign when Jesse Chavez enters a game in the fourth inning, but here he came, in needed relief of an imprecise Max Fried, who needed three pitches to retire the first two hitters but yielded singles to the next four batters.
Not that Chavez was an improvement. It was 4-1 when he entered, 7-1 when he exited. It was 7-3 after 8-1/2 innings, whereupon the Braves almost did a Braves thing. Ronald Acuna singled. Dansby Swanson, who’d struck out four times, singled off the right-field fence. Matt Olson hit a Zach Elfin sinker that didn’t sink over the wall in center. One-run game, two outs left.
William Contreras’ liner had base hit written all over it, but Nick Castellanos made a sliding catch. Travis d’Arnaud grounded to shortstop to end it. Phillies 7, Braves 6.
It’s often said, by bloviators like yours truly, that a team can’t expect to string hits together against an ace in October. The Phillies, ahem, did just that in the first inning against Fried. J.T. Realmuto singled to right, Bryce Harper to left, Castellanos to right, Alec Brohm to right-center. Two runs on four two-out hits.
Fried wasn’t himself. He’d had a stomach bug last week. His throwing error threw open the third inning to another Philly two-spot. He was gone three batters into the fourth.
Phillies 7, Braves 6 (box score)
The Braves had chances. Philadelphia starter Ranger Suarez was even less precise. He left after retiring 10 batters, same as Fried, having dealt 88 pitches, 40 of them non-strikes. But Swanson, maybe the Braves’ MVP this season, struck out three times in the first four innings. One inning after homering off Suarez, d’Arnaud whiffed with the bases loaded.
The Philly bullpen, which has been the bane of Philly denizens since Ben Franklin, had to cover 6-2/3 innings. It did, if only just. Another profundity: It was that sort of day.
Said Fried: “I put us in a big hole. They came out swinging.”
Said d’Arnaud: “They did a good job executing their game plan.. They didn’t overswing. They put the ball in play.”
The Phillies have a big payroll and big names – Harper, Realmuto, Nola, Zack Wheeler, Kyle Schwarber. This, though, is their first playoff run since 2011, which seemed unlikely in June. Philly was 22-29 when it fired manager Joe Girardi. Harper missed two months because of injury. Wheeler missed most of September.
Philly closed the regular season with nine road games. They entered the tournament as the least of the NL qualifiers, having won 87 games. (If memory serves, an 88-win team became the 2021 World Series champion.) Their victory over the Cardinals showed how abrupt the new format can be. St. Louis entered the ninth inning of Game 1 leading 2-0; it was eliminated the next night.
That sent the Phillies, who haven’t been home in two weeks, winging toward Hartsfield-Jackson. They announced Monday that interim manager Rob Thomson had done enough to merit a two-year contract, which was nice of them. They entered the NLDS having already overachieved, and we learned last October that a team unburdened by expectations can, once the crapshoot commences, play out of its mind.
Maybe this time that team will be the Phillies, who haven’t lost yet in these playoffs. The Braves are 0-1, which isn’t the start you’d want, but our vision of this club has changed. The Braves are 19-10 over the past three postseasons, having won five of six series. They trailed 1-0 in the Division Series last year. They outscored Milwaukee 11-4 over the final three games.
Should you be worried? Nah. Concerned, yes, but the Braves have earned the benefit of all doubt. Keep the faith. I’ll tell you when you should be worried, OK?