It happened again, and I don’t know how much more we can take.
The Atlanta Braves are, without question, the best team in baseball, and their offense has been historically prolific. Last night, they built a 6-1 lead with stunning ease off the previously red-hot Zack Wheeler, and it seemed like the Phils were in for a routine, if depressing, loss.
But like they’ve done over and over again in recent weeks, the Phillies fought back. A Bryce Harper solo homer and Bryson Stott two-run shot in the 8th inning brought them to within 6-5 and, in yet another hero moment, Trea Turner smashed his 11th dinger in 13 games, the 150th of his career, to lead off the 9th and miraculously tie the game 6-6.
TREA TURNER ARE YOU KIDDING?!?!?!?!?1 pic.twitter.com/9AQ5o0D2kB— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) September 13, 2023
But that wasn’t the end of the inning. Far from it, because following Turner’s blast off Atlanta closer Raisel Iglesias, Alec Bohm and Bryce Harper followed with singles to put runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out. Iglesias was on the ropes. The winning run was on 2nd and, if Bohm could get moved to 3rd with one out, a fly ball to the outfield or well-placed grounder would win the game in dramatic walk-off fashion.
This is the position you want to be in as the home team. Get the closer behind the eight-ball. You can win the game with well-executed outs. It’s the advantage of playing at home vs. the road. All the cards are in your favor, if you execute the fundamentals.
But as we’ve seen multiple times in recent weeks, the offense failed to execute those fundamentals that have been a part of the game for more than a century. J.T. Realmuto struck out on three pitches, failing to move Bohm to 3rd in the process. Nick Castellanos then hit a hard ground ball up the third base line but right at Austin Riley, who executed a 5-4-3 double play to send the game to extra innings.
If Realmuto gets the runners into scoring position, it’s likely the Braves bring the infield in, making it exceedingly difficult for Riley to make the play cleanly, if at all. And it takes the double play away for Castellanos, who memorably hit into three ground ball double plays in the same game in Milwaukee last week.
But the game wasn’t over. In the top of the 10th, with the zombie runner on 2nd to start the inning, Travis d’Arnaud led off the inning with a ground ball to first baseman Bryce Harper, moving the runner to third. He accomplished what Realmuto couldn’t just moments before. Eddie Rosario followed with a hard-hit ground ball through a drawn-in Phillies infield to right, and the Braves found themselves back on top 7-6, thanks to strong fundamental baseball.
In the bottom of the 10th, with the same zombie runner on 2nd to start the inning, Stott also hit a grounder to first, moving Castellanos to third with one out, but unlike Rosario, Brandon Marsh was unable to hit a ground ball or a fly ball and struck out swinging against former Phillie pinata Brad Hand. Johan Rojas followed with a pop out to 2nd, and after all the slugging of the first nine innings, the Phillies lost thanks to poor fundamental baseball in the final two frames.
And this wasn’t the first time.
The Phillies have lost their last 5 extra-inning games, scoring 3 runs in their last 7 innings with the auto-runner at second base.— Corey Seidman (@CSeidmanNBCS) September 13, 2023
That’s despite scoring 63 runs in the 7th inning or later in their last 25 games, which is 11 more than any team in the majors.
The Phils’ flare for the dramatic, their ability to get up off the deck and come back, is remarkable and should bode well for their ability to score runs in the playoffs. But their shortcomings in executing the fundamentals, specifically in extra innings, is unacceptable.
As for the 9th, many have asked why manager Rob Thomson didn’t bunt Realmuto to move the runners over.
To bunt or not to bunt ... the Phillies Postgame Live crew discusses J.T. Realmuto's at-bat in the ninth. pic.twitter.com/nEJE1Gtc6R— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) September 13, 2023
In the video, Thomson says he didn’t think Realmuto had ever bunted before, and, according to his stat sheet, Realmuto has successfully executed one sacrifice bunt in his career, back in 2015. One can certainly argue that all players should be able to bunt and that all players should be practicing this on a semi-regular basis, and I agree. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, the sacrifice bunt was a normal part of baseball, but the data tells us, rightfully so, that giving away an out to move a runner 90 feet is almost always a low percentage play for scoring runs. And they’re right, except when all you need is one run, when you’re the home team in a tie game with a runner on 2nd and no out. But players don’t do it anymore, it’s not something they practice, and asking Realmuto to sacrifice bunt in that situation likely would have ended in a strikeout anyway.
The clear play would have been to pinch-hit Garrett Stubbs, who is an excellent bunter, for Realmuto in that spot. Realmuto is hitting .186 with runners in scoring position and .192 at home. Taking him out of the game in that spot would have been completely warranted and, quite frankly, the right thing to do. But the odds were better that Realmuto would hit the ball to the right side of the diamond by swinging rather than bunting, so blaming Thomson for that is off.
Nevertheless, however it happens, Realmuto or Stubbs has to get that runner to 3rd, and Marsh has to put the ball in play in the 10th. The same thing happened in the first game of the series, following Harper’s game-tying homer in the bottom of the 9th. Atlanta scored two in the 10th, converting the zombie runner with an RBI single to start off the inning and then getting a second run after a Jose Alvarado wild pitch allowed Kevin Pillar to stand at 2nd with one out. In the bottom of the inning, facing a two-run deficit, the Phils couldn’t even get the zombie runner in, wasting yet another late-game hero moment by Bryce Harper and the Phils.
It’s become a recurring theme.
8/23 vs SF: Harper ties it, lose 8-6— Dan Wilson (@dan_wilson4) September 13, 2023
8/30 vs LAA: Harper’s 300th takes the lead, lose 10-8
9/1 @ MIL: Turner go-ahead, lose 7-5
9/11 vs ATL: Harper ties it, lose 10-8
9/12 vs ATL: Turner ties it, lose 7-6
It’ll be why they don’t host the Wild Card Series at CBP. Unreal.
The Phillies hit HR in each of these spots. They lost all four games. pic.twitter.com/SKUmSQS1Sa— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) September 13, 2023
You just can’t lose these games at home. You just can’t.
Through three games in this series, the Braves have won two of three, but these look like two pretty evenly matched teams at the moment. Atlanta has outscored the Phils 22-21, and two of the three games have gone to extra innings. The Phils have proven to the Braves they have just as much firepower in their lineup, and both teams have weaknesses in their pitching staffs. This is not a team Atlanta wants to see in October and the Phillies have at least proven to themselves they can go toe-to-toe with them.
But in a five-game series, executing the fundamentals may be the thing that allows one team or the other to emerge victorious.
Right now, the Phils have some work to do on that front.