ATLANTA — The Phillies had a chance Monday night to take the lead over the Braves in the National League Division Series.
How do I order?
They were four plays away from putting Atlanta in a position where they would have had to win twice in Philly, and then again in a must-win game started by Zach Wheeler in order to avoid elimination.
Instead, the Phillies went home Monday night with a split — an outcome that would have seemed satisfactory before the series started, but not nearly as satisfying after taking a four-run lead in the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 2.
“No, you wanted to win both games, obviously, against a really good team,” said Wheeler, who was dominant until the seventh. “I think we’re happy with the split but we probably should have won that game.”
They lost 5-4. The Braves, who tied the major league record this season with 307 homers before being shut out in the first game, hit two shots in the seventh and eighth innings to stun the Phillies.
The Phils scored once in the first period and twice in the third. They chased rookie Max Fried (96 pitches) after four innings. They created another run in the fifth when Nick Castellanos singled, stole second, advanced to third on an errant throw and scored on Bryson Stott’s sacrifice fly.
Everything was coming for the Phillies.
Wheeler walked Ronald Acuña Jr. with two outs in the sixth. The Braves’ only base runner got to that point on a fielding error by Trea Turner in the second. Ozzie Albies followed Acuña with a single to right and scored Acuña when Turner failed to hit Castellanos’ throw cleanly to the infield.
Wheeler was in a sixth inning jam but ended it by striking out Austin Riley. In a weird way, it may have cost the Phillies. Left-hander Jose Alvarado was warm in the bullpen to face MLB home run leader Matt Olson if Riley arrived. Olson would have represented the tying route and manager Rob Thompson wanted to left-handed him.
But when Wheeler finished off the sixth with the Phillies still holding a three-run lead, Thompson decided to bring him back out. Olson singled to start the seventh inning, and after Wheeler struck out his 10th hit of the game on Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud took him out to left field for a two-run homer that cut the Phils’ lead to one.
“It’s frustrating, but I let them get the momentum. It’s my fault,” Wheeler said. “I let them get back into the game.
“Plus, it allowed them to get momentum and that’s tough, especially in the playoffs. Momentum is a big part of it, and we saw that last year.”
The Braves ended up winning the game on Riley’s two-run, full-count home run off Jeff Hoffman in the bottom of the eighth. Hoffman has rarely struggled in 2023, but the only runs he’s allowed since Aug. 25 came in Atlanta, two on Sept. 20 in a late leadoff lead and two more on Monday night.
There was an open base when Riley was awake. If Hoffman had gone with him, the Phillies would have brought in lefty Gregory Soto to face Olson.
“I was trying to throw a good pitch with an open base, and obviously that wasn’t happening,” Hoffman said. “A good batting team, they’ll get their goal, but I’ve got to do a better job of not letting that happen, using extra bases and doing my job.”
The game ended with a dramatic defensive play reminiscent of Endy Chavez in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Bryce Harper walked to start the top of the ninth. With one out, Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, one of the best defenders in the game at any position, jumped the wall to steal Castellanos’ extra bases. He fired back toward the field and the Braves doubled Harper from first base to seal the win. Harper made it all the way around second place and couldn’t get back to first place in time.
“He made a good play,” Harper said. “Maybe I wasn’t supposed to get past second base, but I made a decision and I’m going to live with it.”
As brutal as Monday night was for the Phillies, and as much as the memories conjured up, no Phils fan wanted to take back a 4-0 lead in Game 2 of the 2011 NLDS, the Series far from over. The next two games are at Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies should have a pitching matchup in Game 3 with Aaron Nola opposing either Bryce Elder, AJ Smith-Shawver, or the opener. If the series moves back to Atlanta for a Game 5 win, Wheeler will be in a better position.
“We now have home-field advantage, and that’s what you’re really looking for after those two games,” Thompson said.
“It’s a little disappointing. When you’re 4-0 up on those guys, you had some chances to open it up, but you didn’t, and they came back. We didn’t score in the last four rounds of the game.”
Has the momentum changed? Harper doesn’t think so.
“You definitely want to go in and be 2-0 up, but we did our job, we went 1-1 up and we’re going home to play two games in front of our fans and I think we’re all looking forward to that.” He said.
“We have the best fans in the world. They have to come and beat us.”
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