Underdog Phillies immediately show Braves this won’t be easy

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

The Phillies ended their postseason drought at 10 years only because MLB added an extra wild card this year. They were the lowest seed to make it through the wild-card round. The Phillies are up against the Braves in the National League Division Series. The defending World Series champions finished 14 games ahead of them in the NL East.

None of that mattered Tuesday afternoon at Truist Park. The Phillies took a lead in the first inning against Braves ace Max Fried and never gave it back. The Braves lost 7-6 in the opener of the best-of-five series. The Phillies have top-notch starters Zack Wheeler (Game 2 on Wednesday here) and Aaron Nola (Game 3 on Friday in Philadelphia).

“Anytime you have Wheeler and Nola going, you feel good,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “But I think you also have to understand and respect what they have over there because they have some pretty good pitching.”

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The Phillies already bested the Braves’ best pitcher, Fried. He didn’t allow more than two runs over his past 10 starts while averaging six innings per outing. Fried held the Phillies to a total of three runs over 11 innings in back-to-back starts in September. This time Fried didn’t have good command of his fastball, so the Phillies were able to sit on his best pitch, the curveball.

Fried was charged with four earned runs over 3-1/3 innings and he allowed two unearned runs after his throwing error in the third.

“The main thing was getting him in the middle of the zone,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said of the team’s approach. “We know about the ‘stuff’ (quality pitches). We got him in some stressful situations.”

The Phillies have plenty of power hitters, too. But they beat the Cardinals in the wild-card round with a small-ball approach, and it worked again in Game 1. Philadelphia had seven singles among 12 hits, with two sacrifice bunts and two sacrifice flies.

Said Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos: “Just pass the baton. Sometimes, power-hitting teams can get in trouble when they are looking to hit the long ball if the game isn’t giving them the opportunity to hit the long ball.”

The Braves’ homer-or-nothing approach fell flat. The Braves walked seven times, but left the bases loaded twice. They scored two runs in the fifth inning with one out. Then 11 consecutive Braves hitters failed to reach base from then through the eighth. After Matt Olson’s three-run homer off Zach Eflin trimmed the Braves’ deficit to one run in the ninth, the Phillies closed out the victory with the help of Castellanos diving catch for the second out.

The underdog Phillies struck first. Maybe the betting markets were on to something. The Braves were heavily favored to win this series before it started. But they had longer odds to advance than the favorites in the other three series. It makes sense to give Philadelphia a puncher’s chance. The Braves and Phillies might be more evenly matched than their respective records indicate.

The Braves were 11-8 against Philadelphia this season while outscoring them by only three runs. The Braves have a deeper lineup. Philadelphia’s first five hitters all are very good. The starting pitching edge goes to the Phillies. That’s especially the case with Braves right-hander Spencer Strider’s availability uncertain because of an oblique injury.

Fried had his least effective outing of the season at the worst time. His velocity was down from his norm. Manager Brian Snitker said that could be related to Fried’s long layoff since his last start against the Mets, on Sept. 30. Fried had flu-like symptoms during that game. Whatever the reason, the Phillies got to Fried early and often.

Fried threw his fastball often in the first inning. J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper, Castellanos and Alec Bohm hit fastballs for consecutive two-out singles as the Phillies scored twice. Later, Fried mixed up his pitches more often. The approach might have worked if he hadn’t started the third inning with a bad defensive play.

Fried fielded Realmuto’s soft grounder to the left of the mound and threw high to first baseman Olson, whose foot came off the bag. Realmuto reached base on the error. Harper followed with a sacrifice bunt (he said he was trying for a hit). Then Castellanos doubled, Bohm hit a sacrifice fly to score Realmuto and Juan Segura singled with two outs to bring home Castellanos.

The Braves were down 4-1 after three innings. That didn’t seem too daunting. Phillies starting pitcher Ranger Suarez already had a high pitch count, and Philadelphia’s bullpen is shaky. One of its best relievers, David Robertson, was left off the roster after hurting his calf while celebrating in the wild-card round. The Braves couldn’t exploit Philly’s ‘pen until Olson homered off Eflin in the ninth.

The Braves generated only one run against Suarez, Travis d’Arnaud’s homer to lead off the second inning. Suarez started five times against the Braves during the season. William Contreras, Austin Riley and Olson wore him out then: 14-for-37 with six extra-base hits (four homers) and five walks. Riley, Olson and Contreras hit second, third and fourth in the lineup against Suarez for Game 1.

They had their chances against Suarez, but couldn’t break through. Suarez walked Riley and Olson with one out in the first inning before Contreras grounded into a double play. Olson singled and Contreras walked with two out in the third, but d’Arnaud struck out on a high fastball. The Braves scored two runs in the fifth, then their bats went quiet until Olson’s homer, which was too little too late.

The Phillies wouldn’t even be playing in October if not for the expanded playoffs. Now that they’re here, the Phillies are proving to be a tough out. It didn’t take long for the Braves to figure that out.