Last October, the Braves lost Game 1 to Philadelphia because a not-quite-himself Max Fried, whose 2021 playoff experience ended with six shutout innings in the World Series clincher, yielded six runs over 3-1/3 innings. Spencer Strider was better in this opener, fulfilling requirements for a Quality Start – seven innings, one earned run. Trouble was, Strider abetted the unearned run that gave Philly a 1-0 lead.
The Phillies declared their intentions early: Catcher J.T. Realmuto was caught stealing in the second inning. The visitors were undeterred. Their next five steal attempts succeeded. After walking Bryce Harper in the fourth, Strider sought to chase him back to the bag. His throw-over sailed into the screen behind first base, moving Harper into scoring position. He scored on Bryson Stott’s single to left.
He would score again in the sixth, hoisting a Strider slider into the right-field seats. There was, it must be said, no “hanging” in this slider. It dove downward, as sliders are supposed to do. Sometimes good hitters whomp good pitches. This was such a time. 2-0, Philly.
“He’s good,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Harper, who reached base four times. “He’s a Hall of Famer.”
By then, Philly was deep into its bullpen. Starter Ranger Suarez – who’s not a full-time starter – was touched for one hit over 3-2/3 innings, the one being a wrong-way single by Matt Olson in the fourth. Next up was Ozzie Albies, who reached when shortstop Trea Turner threw to the wrong base. And that, for Suarez, was it. He was caught by cameras expressing disbelief in the dugout.
No matter. The parade had begun. Jeff Hoffman struck out Michael Harris to end the fourth. Seranthony Dominguez struck out Ronald Acuna looking and Austin Riley swinging to end the fifth. Jose Alvarado worked the sixth, rookie Orion Kerkering the seventh.
Before the game, starter Zack Wheeler said of his team’s relievers: “We got a lot of guys with a lot of velo down there. It’s a little different than last year and years past. This type of team (the Braves) can hit mistakes even with velocity, so you still have to be careful, but you can get away with a little more when you do have your velocity up that high.”
Down 3-0 after Sean Murphy was called for catcher’s interference in the eighth with the bases loaded – the All-Star had a rough night – the Braves built their best chance. Acuna drew a walk from Kerkering. Riley singled to right off Matt Strahm. Olson’s deep fly pushed Acuna to third. Albies, batting cleanup in Snitker’s retailored order, hit a grounder that seemed bound for left field.
But no. Turner, for whom the Phillies paid $300 million, dove and gloved the ball. He flipped it to Stott, who threw Albies, a fast man, out at first. You’ll not see a better double play this postseason. You might never see a better one at a more important moment.
Craig Kimbrel worked a 1-2-3 ninth. He was the Phillies’ seventh pitcher.
The visitors have again stolen a march on the favored Braves, and this year’s Game 1 loss was especially galling. One of the greatest hitting teams in baseball annals didn’t score. The Braves mustered five hits, all singles.
What, Snitker was asked, does his team do now? “Regroup and come back Monday,” he said. “We’ve got a good pitcher (Fried) going.”
The Phillies do, too. Wheeler will work Monday. Aaron Nola gets Game 3 in Philly. Said manager Rob Thomson: “I’m glad we have Wheeler and Nola, but you can’t take anything for granted.”
Of Strider, who wanted to keep going, Snitker said: “I told him, ‘You did your job.’ "
On this night, it was the Braves’ famous hitters who failed. Those record-matching 307 homers, the record-setting .501 slugging percentage … those stats are now yesterday’s news.
Today’s headline: The Braves are back where they were, back where they didn’t want to be. They’re behind in a series they’re supposed to win.