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Dynasty vs. destiny

There is a feeling with these two teams

Division Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It occurs to me (and evidently not just me) that the 2011 Phillies were the 2023 Braves. Kind of. That team exerted dominance from the mound, not the batter’s box. And, unfortunately for all of us, the 2011 Phils were an older team with the end of their run in sight, while these Braves seem positioned to compete for titles roughly less forever.

Those differences aside, both teams had ruled the NL East for half a decade, and glided to the division crown that year. Both had put up full-season numbers rarely if ever seen in the course of baseball history. Both were right on the cusp of a confirmed baseball dynasty, with one World Series title already banked among a clutch of playoff appearances. And both brought rosters into the playoffs that seemed clearly superior to the earlier version that had hoisted the trophy.

Of course, the Phillies’ near-dynasty ended in Game 5 of the 2011 Division Series, at the hands of a St. Louis Cardinals team that snuck into the playoffs after overtaking the Braves on the last day of the season. The particulars of that series—the Game Two lead Cliff Lee couldn’t protect, that f*$%ing squirrel, the finale’s epic Roy Halladay-Chris Carpenter duel and Ryan Howard’s concluding collapse—are burned into the brains of any Phillies fan over 18 or so. No need to dwell on them, nor the ten seasons of wandering in the baseball wilderness that followed.

Maybe the better comparison would have been last year, when the Phillies barely made the dance and, after taking some extremely delayed but still-sweet revenge over the Cardinals, knocked off the defending world champion Braves in a series that reignited Philadelphia’s love affair with baseball. Then came “Bedlam at the Bank” to clinch the pennant, a comeback from a 5-0 deficit and an extra-inning road win in the World Series opener, and a five-homer outburst in Game Three for their seventh straight playoff win at Citizens Bank Park. On the morning of November 2, you wouldn’t have found much argument against the idea that the 2022 Phils were a team of destiny.

But dynasties steamroll the darlings of narrative. The Astros—making their sixth straight playoff appearance, coming off their fifth division championship in six seasons, seeking their second title—bounced back that night with a combined no-hitter to even the Series. They out-toughed the Phillies in a classic Game Five, then finished it off at home when the magic finally ran out for Rob Thomson and Jose Alvarado.

Dynasty 1, Destiny 0.

Now come the Braves, every bit the aspiring juggernaut Houston was last year: six straight division titles, one world championship, an MLB-best 104 regular season wins. Their lineup compares favorably to the most dominant offenses in baseball history. The Phillies have six hitters with over 20 home runs this season; the Braves have seven. Five of them pounded 33 or more, and three hit at least 40. Seven of their nine regulars have an OPS+ at least 14 points above league average. Two of them, the terrifying Matt Olson and the otherworldly Ronald Acuña Jr., topped 160.

A couple things complicate the story. For one, of course, the Phillies beat this team last year in a series that wasn’t all that close: they split in Atlanta, and then won the last two in Philly—their first home games in almost a month—by a combined score of 17-4. So they already pulled the big upset. For another, this year’s Phillies aren’t a classic underdog: you lose title to that claim when you spend into the luxury bracket, employ two future of Hall of Famers, and get recognized by the whole baseball world as the biggest threat to the favorites.

What’s left is mostly vibes. This Phillies team is better than their record: over the last four months, they played at a 100-win pace, and it seemed like about half their wins came after falling behind 3-0 in the second inning. They’re Johan Rojas unbuttoning his jersey and Nick Castellanos giving his dugout the finger—the one where a World Series ring would go. They’re Orion Kerkering and Jeff Hoffman going from April who-dats to October firemen. They’re Topper making Rojas bunt three times in the season finale against the Mets. They’re the eardrum- shredding joy of Bryson Stott’s grand slam sending the Marlins home.

Though again, all that is story stuff. If you want numbers, consider that Ranger Suarez has a 3.00 ERA in 16 career appearances (7 starts) against Atlanta. Georgia native Zack Wheeler has pitched almost a full-season’s worth against the Braves over his career, going 12-7 with a 3.18 ERA over 27 starts. Aaron Nola has seen them even more, and done almost as well: he’s 15-10, 3.40 in 33 lifetime starts. None of those guys will be afraid, and they should be the only three starters the Phils use in the series. Among the relievers, Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel, Matt Strahm and Seranthony Dominguez all have good-to-great career stats facing the Braves. (Topper might want to steer clear of Gregory Soto.)

I don’t bet on sports, and I’m old enough to be taken aback by how prevalent that is now and judgy enough to find it a little disconcerting. But even if I were generally inclined to do so, I can’t imagine I’d be racing out to put dollars on this series. By definition, dynasties, and even near- dynasties, win a lot. The 2022 Phillies were the last steppingstone to the Astros confirming themselves as an all-time team. This year’s model could well wind up playing a similar role in the Braves’ dynastic story, and they won’t be taking anyone by surprise.

But damned if it doesn’t feel like they have some mojo anyway.