They did keep going before until Ronald Acuña Jr. provided hope with a walk and some hustle. Then Travis d’Arnaud broke the homer drought with a two-run shot against Wheeler in the seventh. Riley delivered the decisive blow with a two-run homer off reliever Jeff Hoffman in the eighth inning.
The Braves won 5-4 because the offense that set records during the regular season came alive in the playoffs, at last.
“I think they finally amassed a few at-bats after the layoff and kind of got back in their groove a little bit,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
If Snitker is right about that, then the Braves can take back control of this series. They’ve gotten enough pitching. The hitting had gone missing. The offense came back just in time to save the Braves from going down 0-2 deficit in the best-of-five series.
Through the first 14 innings of the series, the Braves had five hits (all singles) and no runs. Over the next three innings they erupted for four runs, including two homers. Center fielder Michael Harris made the five runs hold up. He made a sensational catch on Nick Castellano’s drive to the right-center wall in the ninth to start a game-ending doubling play.
In one hour, the Braves changed their outlook from seemingly hopeless to carrying momentum into Game 3 on Wednesday in Philly. When Wheeler was setting them down, it appeared as if they would be going there with an 0-2 deficit and an unproven starter for Game 3 (likely Bryce Elder) vs. tough Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola.
Then the Braves suddenly rediscovered their slugging to erase the 4-0 deficit. It all started with Acuña creating the first opening against Wheeler.
With two outs in the sixth, Acuña came back from a 1-2 count to draw a walk. Ozzie Albies stroked a single on the next pitch. That was the first well-hit ball against Wheeler. Acuña quickly made his way to third base and watched Nick Castellano’s throw to cut-off man Trea Turner.
Turner didn’t watch it closely enough. He bobbled the ball as Acuña ran home to score.
“Ronnie got the crowd back in it,” d’Arnaud said. “I think that was the biggest thing. Got the crowd back in it and got momentum back on our side.”
Wheeler struck out Riley to end the threat, but he was finally showing some cracks. Wheeler recorded strikeouts for eight of his first 10 outs, but seven consecutive Braves hitters put balls in play before Acuña’s walk. Phillies manager Rob Thomson elected to send Wheeler out for the seventh and the first batter, Matt Olson, singled.
Marcell Ozuna followed with a strikeout on a high fastball. Wheeler had great results with that pitch. Next up was catcher d’Arnaud. He was responsible for a Phillies run in the fifth because of a throwing error that allowed Castellano to reach third after stealing second. Castellano would score on a sacrifice fly.
D’Arnaud made amends with his homer. Wheeler tried a “sweeper” on the first pitch. It’s a combination curve and slider, and d’Arnaud was waiting for it. He smacked the ball so high that it appeared it might fall short of the wall in left field. It ended up clearing it easily.
Phillies lefty José Alvarado ended the inning with strikeouts of Kevin Pullar and Orlando Arcia. Thomson called on Hoffman for the eighth. In Game 1, Hoffman stranded two Braves runners in a tight situation. In Game 2, he hit Acuña with a pitch with one out before Riley hit the go-ahead homer with two outs.
“You just try to take those moments in, because postseason is special,” Riley said. “It’s awesome. Awesome time of year, awesome baseball.”
After 14 innings of doing nothing, Braves were erasing deficits by smashing homers like they’d done all season. That’s what they needed after a lackluster outing from Fried.
Fried hadn’t pitched in an official game since Sept. 21 because of a blister on his throwing hand. The Braves were asking him to save the series without the benefit of even a rehabilitation start in the minor leagues. It was the best choice from a limited set of options for the Braves.
Somehow, Fried made it through four innings with just three runs allowed. It could have been much worse. Fried threw almost as many balls (44) as strikes (51) and the Phillies left seven runners on base. The visitors ended up stranding 11 runners as Braves relievers held them scoreless over four innings.
Harris put a cap on the night with his catch at the wall. He turned and threw to cut-off man Albies, who whiffed on the bouncing ball. Riley was backing up the play—luckily, he said, because he was focused on screaming at teammates to throw to first before Harper could get back. Riley did it himself to end the game.
The Braves had finally bashed their way to victory, as expected.