We should be celebrating a 2-0 series lead right now. We should be looking ahead to a potential game three clincher in front of an insane Citizens Bank Park crowd. Max Fried and his blister couldn’t control his fastball, and Zack Wheeler couldn’t allow a hit. But then the Phillies’ offense couldn’t add to the lead, Wheeler faltered, and the normally reliable Jeff Hoffman couldn’t hold the lead. And what we’re left with is a 5-4 Braves win and an NLDS series tied at one win apiece.
Let’s agree that the Phillies should never again take a 4-0 lead in game two of a playoff series with one of their aces on the mound. I’m sure most of us remember Cliff Lee getting BABIP-ed to death in game two of the 2011 NLDS, but thanks to Bryce Harper, it is largely overlooked that Aaron Nola similarly wasted a 4-0 lead in game two of the 2022 NLCS.
Facing Max Fried who was recovering from a blister on his finger, and the Phillies weren’t missing his pitches. A Trea Turner double followed by an Alec Bohm single, and the Phillies had an early lead.
Seizing the Bohment early pic.twitter.com/2RXyVJAg1x— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) October 9, 2023
The lead probably should have been bigger. The next two batters reached base, but Bryson Stott grounded out to end the inning. It felt like a missed opportunity, and sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time we that felt that way.
They left a runner on second base in the second inning before J.T. Realmuto extended the lead to three with his two-run shot in the third.
They stranded two more runners in the fourth, before adding a solo run thanks to an uncommon source. Nick Castellanos - not usually known for manufacturing runs with his legs - stole second base, reached third on a throwing error, and then scored on a sacrifice fly.
The way Wheeler was dealing, a four-run lead felt insurmountable. He didn’t allow a hit over the first five innings, and if he wasn’t striking batters out, he was inducing very weak contact.
But after the Phillies stranded another two in the sixth, the Phillies gave the Braves life thanks to a fielding mistake. Ronald Acuna walked, and Ozzie Albies followed with a single that should have put runners on the corners. Except Turner mishandled the relay throw into the infield, allowing Acuna to score. It was the second routine play that Turner mishandled, and while Wheeler erased his first mistake, this one was costly.
Olson gets on to lead off the inning with an error by Trea Turner pic.twitter.com/mCrBUI74Fn— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 9, 2023
It wasn’t clear if Wheeler would come back out for the seventh, but Rob Thomson let Wheeler start the inning against Matt Olson who greeted him with a single. Most people figured that would be it for Wheeler, but perhaps Rob Thomson had visions of game six of the World Series in his head. Wheeler continued, and struck out Marcell Ozuna, but was not as successful against Travis d’Arnaud.
With the lead reduced to one, it would have been a good time for the Phillies’ offense to wake up, but they went quietly in the eighth.
Jose Alvarado had finished the seventh and came back out to start started the eighth. He retired Michael Harris and was lifted in favor of Jeff Hoffman to face the top of the Braves’ order. It was an ominous sign when Hoffman’s first pitch hit Acuna. He retired Albies on a weak grounder to first and then got Austin Riley to a full count. Hoffman almost had Riley fooled on a slider, but almost doesn’t count for much in baseball.
That was less than ideal, but the Phillies are no stranger to ninth inning comebacks. The ninth got off to a good start with Bryce Harper leading off with a walk. And then with one out, Nick Castellanos got a hold of one.
Michael Harris II and the Braves turn an INSANE game-ending double play to tie up the series! ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/JxTVnhpwFL— The Comeback (@thecomeback) October 10, 2023
Sigh. Maybe Harper should have been more cautious, but against a good closer, he knew that if he didn’t score on a hit there, he probably doesn’t score.
I won’t pretend that this wasn’t bad. The Phillies were in prime position to put an absolute chokehold on the series, and let it slip away. But heading into the series, we all would have been happy with a split in Atlanta. Maybe it was a shift in momentum, but as it’s been said, momentum in baseball is the next game’s starting pitcher. (And by the way, the Braves’ options for game three aren’t all that appealing.)
Maybe this loss would demoralize some teams, but the Phillies have bounced back from gut punch losses all season. If anything, this will probably make them more fired up for game three. I have a feeling that when the Phillies take the field in front of 40,000+ screaming maniacs, they’ll have put this behind them and be ready to extract some revenge. Game three on Wednesday: Go Phillies!