Another good Braves season ends badly in Philadelphia

They still can’t figure out the Phillies

PHILADELPHIA — In the end, the players for the best team in baseball patted themselves on the back for not giving up.

Sure, the Braves lost to the Phillies again in the National League Division Series. But they kept the margin close this time at Citizens Bank Park, losing 3-1 in Game 4 on Wednesday night. With the season on the line, one of the most powerful lineups ever assembled scored one run. At least Braves right-hander Spencer Strider gave them a chance by allowing three.

“We had a lot of confidence, a lot of belief,” Strider said. “We left it out there. Obviously, the results are unacceptable and not what we wanted, but we’re happy with the way we competed.”

The Braves were supposed to do a lot more than that after winning 104 games and setting several offensive records. They were favored to win the World Series. Instead, another good season ended badly in Philly. Another NL East title is diminished by a one-and-done October.

Now, the ghosts of Braves teams past hang over this one. The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005 but just one World Series. The Braves are on a streak of six straight division titles with one Series victory, in 2021. Will that also end up being the only one amid a stretch of division dominance?

The back-to-back flops against the Phillies will cast a shadow on the 2024 season. No matter what the Braves do next summer, outsiders will be waiting to see how they handle October. It may not be fair, but that’s what the Braves get for another sorry showing against the Phillies in the playoffs.

Doing that once could be written off as a fluke. Doing it twice in a row, and in similar fashion, makes for a pattern. The Phillies are just better than the Braves when the stakes are highest.

“It’s brutal,” Braves first baseman Matt Olson said. “They outplayed us. They outplayed us last year, they outplayed us this year.”

The 2021 World Series title has become the outlier for the Braves. They were charmed that year while coming out of nowhere to win a championship that no one saw coming. Since then, the Braves have become a regular season machine and postseason flops.

The Phillies exposed them both times. When it matters most, they’ve got something that the Braves don’t. When the Braves come to this ballpark in October, they lose the edge that makes them great over 162 games.

During the season, the Braves tied the MLB record for home runs and led the league in runs scored. Against the Phillies, the Braves had just two home runs among four extra-base hits while scoring a total of 11 runs.

“You know what? I’m going to give their pitching credit,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said “They executed. They pitched really well. They kept our offense quiet so, they beat us.”

If the Braves want to win another World Series soon, they likely are going to have to figure out the Phillies. The expectation is that the Braves will be contenders for years to come because six lineup regulars and Strider are under team contractual control through the 2027 season. But the Phillies are in it for the long run, too.

Right-hander Aaron Nola can become a free agent after this season, but the rest of the team’s core could be around for a while. Star slugger Bryce Harper and shortstop Trea Turner essentially have lifetime contracts. The players in the rest of the lineup are all signed through at least the 2025 season. Outfielder Nick Castellanos, who hit two homers in Games 3 and 4, has three more years left on his deal and staff ace Zack Wheeler is signed through the 2024 season.

The Braves have a stacked lineup that did little in the NLDS. It’s hard to know what to do about that. The Braves also were short on pitching. Bryce Elder started Game 3 and showed he wasn’t ready for the big stage. Charlie Morton likely would have started Game 3 instead of Elder if he were healthy.

Morton’s injury was unlucky, but the Braves wouldn’t have to rely so much on good fortune if they’d added a starting pitcher before the Aug. 1 trade deadline. Max Fried and Kyle Wright were on the injured list at the time. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said positive medical reports for them influenced his decision to not add a pitcher.

Wright never made it back. Fried did, though another stint on the injured list left him rusty for the NLDS. You can never have enough pitching, as the saying goes. The Braves definitely didn’t have enough in the end.

The Braves also might need better leadership in the clubhouse. I didn’t like the way their players handled the aftermath of their lopsided loss in Game 3.

Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia caused a stir by mocking Harper’s base running miscue to end Game 2. Arcia’s mistake was doing that while reporters were in the clubhouse, but it wasn’t a big deal. Players talk trash about their opponents when they think there’s no outsiders around.

But then Harper made it a bigger story by staring down Arcia while rounding the bases after each of his two homers in Game 3. Afterwards, I went to the visiting clubhouse expecting Braves players to downplay the episode. Instead, d’Arnaud said the reporter who did their job by reporting had violated the “sanctuary” of the clubhouse. Some of d’Arnaud’s teammates expressed similar sentiments.

I couldn’t believe it. Was that really the hot topic for the Braves after they’d just lost 10-2 to the Phillies and faced elimination? Wouldn’t it be better to deflect questions about Arcia and change the subject to what really mattered, playing better against the Phillies?

D’Arnaud eventually got around to making that point, but it was lost amid the complaining about a silly story that had nothing to do with winning games. I knew the Braves were in trouble after that episode, though they were better in Game 4. They had a chance late to send the game back to Truist Park for Game 5.

Trainling 3-1 in the seventh inning, the Braves loaded the bases with three straight two-out walks. That brought up Ronald Acuña Jr. to face closer Craig Kimbrel. Here was Acuña’s chance to make amends for what had been an unproductive series. He couldn’t do it.

Acuña smacked a line drive to left-center field. Johan Rojas chased it down and made an awkward catch. Acuña, the favorite to win the MVP, was 2-for-14 in the NLDS with two walks and no home runs. Harper was 7-for-19 with three home runs and five RBIs while reaching base in more than half of his plate appearances.

Philadelphia’s star player was better in this series. That also happened in the 2022 NLDS. The Phillies got more production from other hitters. That was another repeat of last October. The Phillies pitched more effectively than the Braves, same as the 2022 NLDS.

The best team in baseball competed when facing elimination in the NLDS but still lost. The 2023 Braves were supposed to do so much more than that.

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