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Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies will need an MVP-level performance from Bryce Harper
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

King nothing: Phillies vs. Braves PLAYOFF series preview

The Braves will find that their 2021 achievements mean little in this year’s playoffs

After summarily dismissing the overmatched St. Louis Cardinals in two games, the Phillies move on to the NLDS, where they will theoretically face some tougher competition in the form of the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves captured the National League East with 101 wins and are the defending World Series champions. Those are nifty little achievements to be sure, but they will count for absolutely nothing once the first pitch is thrown on Tuesday.

Atlanta Braves

Record: 101-61 (First place in National League East)

Season series in review

The record between the Phillies and Braves was even until an unfortunate mid-September series in Atlanta went poorly for the Phillies. The next time they squared off was far more representative of how these teams matched up, with the Braves requiring an extra-inning win in the final game to salvage a series split.

What’s the deal with the Braves?

The Braves won the East, running down the New York Mets who once appeared to hold an insurmountable lead over the rest of the division. Now I’m all for making the Mets and their fans suffer (more on this later), but let’s be honest here: Erasing a huge deficit to overtake the Mets for the NL East title is SO 2007.

Obviously, the Braves have some talented players on hand, because you can’t luck your way into 101 wins. But the elements that allow a team to succeed in the regular season do not completely overlap with what allows a team to win in the playoffs. Want some evidence of this? Just take a look at the past thirty years of Braves history.

The blind squirrel often goes hungry

The Braves and their fans would like to believe that by winning the World Series in 2021, they proved that their days of choking in the playoffs were behind them. You would think they would know better.

Let’s flashback to the good old days of 1996. Bill Clinton was in the White House, the Macarena was the biggest dance craze in the world, and the Braves were the defending World Series champions.

Much like 2021, after a few years of coming up short in the playoffs (even though they were favored to win it all most years) the Braves had finally broken through and won the World Series in 1995.

The 1996 team looked poised to repeat. They were loaded with talent - this was in the Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz heyday - and Braves fans started comparing themselves to a modern edition of the 1920’s New York Yankees. But these Braves couldn’t even beat the 1996 edition of the Yankees, blowing a 2-0 series lead to fall in six games.

That little setback kicked off a 24-year streak of not winning the World Series. They almost always made the playoffs during that stretch, but it didn’t matter if they were favorites or underdogs; at some point during the MLB playoffs, it was guaranteed that the Braves would be denied a title.

During the pandemic, I needed some way to fill the time, so I wrote about a few of those losses:

Jim Leyrtiz and the Yankees win game four of the World Series

Mickey Morandini and the 1993 Phillies top Greg Maddux

Braves give up ten runs in first inning of an elimination game

In 2021, the blind squirrel found its nut, and the Braves managed to win it all. Maybe that means they “figured out” how to win and will be able to repeat as champions. But it's more likely that they filled their quota and will go back to falling short for the next twenty years or so.

Is momentum real?

Thanks to having the second-best record in baseball, the Braves did not have to play in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. While this has the benefit of ensuring they won’t get upset like some other 101-win teams I know, it also could serve to stall any momentum they might have carried over from the regular season. On the other hand, the Phillies’ confidence levels seem to be bolstered by taking down the Cardinals in two hard-fought games.

Will that matter once the first game begins? It wouldn’t be the first time that a team got hot at the right time and took down a favored opponent that had been sitting around for a few days.

Fear for Kenley

Remember back in early June when Josh Hader was a nigh-untouchable closer for the Milwaukee Brewers? Pretty much nobody could get a hit off of the guy...until Alec Bohm did.

All it took was that first drawing of blood to turn Hader ordinary. He gave up another home run to Matt Vierling in that inning, and all of a sudden, he was very touchable, to the point that the playoff contending Brewers (they didn’t make it into the playoffs, by the way) traded him away in midseason.

Flash forward to the Wild Card playoffs, where the Cardinals possessed a similarly well-regarded closer in Ryan Helsley. They handed him a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning of game one against the Phillies, and minutes later, the Phillies are celebrating their sixth run of the inning, while Helsley is being checked to see if his hand even works anymore.

Thanks in part to their ruination of Helsley, the Phillies are off to Atlanta to face a team with another top closer in Kenley Jansen.

Sleeping on Ranger

If you hadn’t yet trained your brain to tune out the ESPN announcers in the late innings of Saturday’s game, you would have heard them mention that the Cardinals would have had an advantage in game three because the Cardinals “feast” on left-handed pitching, and the Phillies had lefty Ranger Suarez scheduled to start that game.

In discussing the Phillies, much adulation has deservedly been heaped upon Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. But you also hear that the Phillies don’t have much depth after them. I get that Bailey Falter is a young pitcher with unremarkable stuff, so you might consider him a weak point. But why are people acting like Suarez isn’t a good pitcher?

After a terrific 2021 season where he filled just about every pitching role and excelled in each of them, he was penciled into the rotation for 2022. But due to a delayed start to his Spring, he got off to a slow start. Since then, he’s been pretty darned good. His second half ERA is 3.15 and that includes his final start against the Astros when he and the entire team appeared to be nursing a hangover.

Suarez could make two starts against the Braves this series, which is not the advantage for the Braves many people think it is. In five starts against Atlanta this season, Suarez has a 3.25 ERA. In his last three starts against them, he gave a combined one run across 17 innings.

Stars gotta shine

When the Braves swept the Phillies last month, they were largely carried by Ronald Acuna. He had two home runs and six RBIs in the series and also made a great play in right field that may have saved one of the games for Atlanta.

That stood in contrast to the Phillies’ MVP winning designated hitter who was 2-12 with no walks and five strikeouts over the three games.

Bryce Harper has clearly not been 100% since coming off the injured list, but he showed signs of life in the second game of the Wild Card series by getting two hits including a mammoth home run. He’s shown that he can absolutely carry the team when he gets hot. But even if he is getting ready to go on a tear, he’ll need some help.

If you heard that Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Nick Castellanos would go a combined 2-29 in a playoff series, you probably would not have expected them to win. Thankfully, the pitching staff was on top of its game, but the Phillies can’t count on their pitchers to shut down the opponent every time out. The offense is going to need to do their part.

Too often this season, this lineup that was “built to mash” did not mash enough. Those core hitters need to deliver hits with runners on base, and they need to hit some balls out of the ballpark.

The good thing about baseball is that until you’re eliminated, it’s never too late to turn things around. Nick Castellanos’ season has been a disappointment, but a strong showing from here on out can completely re-write the narrative. All those people clamoring to trade Rhys Hoskins will likely change their tune if he hits a few home runs in this series.

Once last laugh at the Mets

I know they’re not involved in this series, but how about those Mets?

I realize they’re upset, but considering their history, you’d think their fans would have learned how to take losses a little more gracefully. Instead, they’re whining about the unfairness of the playoffs, as if the system should be catered to a team that had just the third-best record in the league and finished second in their own division.

Closing thought

There are no easy playoff series, but there are playoff series that are winnable, and this feels like one of them. Before the postseason began, there was a concern that the Phillies might have been happy just to be there, but that didn’t play out against the Cardinals. And even though this was the first playoff experience for many of their key players, they certainly didn’t appear intimidated by the big stage.

The Braves may have 101 wins to their credit, but the Phillies have played them 19 times, and for the most part, played them evenly. The Braves have a lot of talent but look at the names on the Phillies roster. They have a lineup, rotation, and even a bullpen capable of winning playoff series. And the Braves’ status as defending champs will just make it that much sweeter when the Phillies take them down.

It’s going to be tense, but it’s going to be fun. Go Phillies!

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