Late Homers, Wild Final Play Help Braves Knot Division Series Against Phillies

Austin Riley Ronald Acuña Jr.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves can thank Austin Riley for pulling Monday night’s win out of a hat in the late innings. His two-run homer off Jeff Hoffman in the bottom of the eighth inning of NLDS Game 2 gave the Braves their fifth unanswered run and a 5–4 lead. His heads-up throw to first base to double up Bryce Harper at the tail end of a wild, spectacular play secured the game’s final out, helping the Braves escape Truist Field with a split after spending most of the night looking like they would be heading to Philadelphia on the brink of elimination.

That game-ending double play occurred with Nick Castellanos at the plate and Harper, representing the tying run after drawing a leadoff walk against A.J. Minter (who was then replaced by closer Raisel Iglesias), on first. Castellanos swatted a towering 101-mph drive an estimated 392 feet to deep center field. Center fielder Michael Harris II got on his horse to run down the ball, making a leaping catch at the wall to take away a sure extra-base hit that could have tied the game. Harper, who had been running on contact, had to turn back after passing second base, and though Harris’ relay throw bounced past cutoff man Ozzie Albies, Riley alertly backed up the play, backhanding the ball and side-arming a peg to first baseman Matt Olson in time to nab Harper for one of the craziest endings to a postseason game in recent memory.

Not only was that was the first 8-5-3 double play in postseason history, according to’s Sarah Langs, but Harris also made history by becoming the first outfielder to start a game-ending double play in postseason history, according to OptaStats.

The play capped an exceptional Braves comeback. For much of Monday night, it was fair to wonder if they would ever get on the board against the Phillies. After being held scoreless by Ranger Suárez and a six-pack of relievers in the Division Series opener, the team that won a major league-high 104 games was held hitless for 5.2 innings by Zack Wheeler and fell into a 4–0 hole as Max Fried struggled.

Wheeler, who led the majors in fWAR (5.9) but didn’t get much love in Cy Young conversations, either here or elsewhere, looked like the best pitcher on the planet in the early going. With his fastball consistently around 97-98 mph, he dominated the Braves from the outset, striking out the side in the first inning; he punched out Ronald Acuña Jr. swinging at a 98-mph fastball on the outer third, then got both Albies and Riley with 97-mph high cheese. It was a fastball-heavy diet — 10 four-seamers and two sinkers — against a team that handled fastballs 97 mph or higher almost as well as any other; their .325 wOBA against such pitches ranked fourth in the majors.

Wheeler got all three outs in the second via strikeouts, but only after Trea Turner kicked an Olson grounder to lead off the inning. The 33-year-old righty picked up his shortstop by striking out Marcell Ozuna (looking at a 97-mph fastball on the upper outer corner), Travis d’Arnaud (swinging at a high 97) and Eddie Rosario (chasing a low curve). He struck out only one hitter apiece in the third and fourth and didn’t strike out anyone in the fifth, but just the same, he held the Braves hitless; d’Arnaud’s one-out fly ball in the fifth was the first contact off him that even reached the outfield.

By that point, the Phillies had built a 4–0 lead against a shaky Fried. The 29-year-old lefty was limited to 14 starts in the regular season, posting a 2.55 ERA and 3.14 FIP but missing three months from early May to early August due to a forearm strain, then making just one start after September 12 due to a blister on his left index finger. It had been 18 days since that start, and while he threw a simulated game last Tuesday, he simply wasn’t sharp.

The Phillies collected four first-inning hits off Fried’s fastballs, making him throw 30 pitches. After seeing five straight curveballs, Turner smacked a low 97-mph fastball into the right-center gap for a one-out hustle double. Alec Bohm followed with a 79-mph jam shot over shortstop Orlando Arcia and into no-man’s land in shallow center, giving the speedy Turner ample time to score. After Harper struck out, J.T. Realmuto and Castellanos each singled, loading the bases. That drew pitching coach Rick Kranitz out to visit Fried, who escaped by getting Bryson Stott to ground out to first base.

Fried had a slightly easier second inning but still needed 21 pitches to work around a one-out walk of Johan Rojas, who took second on a wild pitch. He got into deeper trouble in the third, when Harper lined a one-out single and then Realmuto punished a hanging slider, sending it 411 feet to right center for a two-run homer.

After Fried walked Castellanos on six pitches, the Braves’ bullpen began to stir; Fried had gotten seven outs and was approaching 70 pitches. He survived that frame but found trouble again in the fourth with a pair of walks, and while he escaped by getting Harper to ground out, with 95 pitches through four innings, his night was done.

In all, Fried allowed six hits, walked four and struck out just three. He went 2–0 to nine of the 22 batters he faced and netted just 51 strikes from among his 95 pitches. He did get eight whiffs in 15 swings against his curveball but just seven more against the rest of his arsenal, finishing with a 28% CSW rate; the Phillies chased just 24% of his pitches out of the zone. The Braves will need better from him if they’re to make a deep October run.

Kirby Yates replaced Fried to start the fifth, and the Phillies manufactured a run out of bits and bobs. With one out, Castellanos hit a broken-bat single to right field, stole second — the Phillies’ sixth steal of the series — and took third when d’Arnaud’s off-line throw bounced into center field, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Stott to run the lead to 4–0. The Phillies continued to run wild, with Cristian Pache walking and then stealing before Yates struck out Rojas.

Wheeler had thrown just 71 pitches through five, striking out eight without issuing a walk or allowing a hit. But the Braves finally showed signs of life in the sixth as they faced him for a third time. After Arcia and Harris both grounded out to turn over the lineup, Acuña worked a two-out walk, and Albies smacked a high fastball into right field for the Braves’ first hit. Acuña was already going first to third, but he scored when Castellanos’ relay throw skipped away from Turner after hitting the lip of the infield grass; the shortstop was charged with another error. Wheeler snuffed out the nascent rally when he caught Riley looking at a sinker on the outside corner — a generous call based on all visual evidence.

Wheeler began the seventh by giving up his second hit, a 111-mph scorcher to center from Olson, on his 87th pitch of the night. Manager Rob Thomson could have pulled him there, with the bullpen heating up, but with a three-run cushion and a feeling that Wheeler’s stuff “was still pretty good” (as he said afterwards), he let his workhorse stay in. Wheeler briefly rewarded Thomson’s faith by striking out Ozuna with a sweeper in the dirt, but his next pitch — another sweeper — hung in the middle of the strike zone, and d’Arnaud crushed it to left field for a two-run homer, trimming the Braves’ deficit to one and ending the righty’s otherwise brilliant night on a sour note.

Wheeler struck out 10 and issued just one walk. Like Fried, he registered just a 28% CSW rate and generated 15 swings and misses; in his case, he got seven via his four-seamer and four apiece with his sweeper and curve. The Braves chased 40% of his pitches outside the zone, and only two of their eight hard-hit balls went for hits. Still, those were two big ones.

Fireballing lefty José Alvarado relieved Wheeler, notched a pair of strikeouts, then retired Harris to start the eighth before giving way to Hoffman. He’s been the Phillies’ most effective righty reliever this year, but he grazed Acuña with a pitch; the Braves outfielder advanced to second on a groundout, then stole third. Hoffman then got ahead of Riley, 1–2, but the slugging third baseman laid off a pair of pitches in the dirt before connecting on a low slider. This one was all launch angle at 35 degrees.

Somehow Riley ranked just fourth on the Braves this year with his 37 homers, behind Olson (54), Acuña (41) and Ozuna (40) as the team tied the Twins’ 2019 record of 307 homers. Most of them traveled further than this one’s projected distance of 376 feet, but this was bigger than any of them for its impact.

As for that incredible final play, MLBcom’s David Adler posted a couple of Statcast 3D animations that help illustrate the placement of the key players. Here’s the drive:

Here’s Harper, who was about halfway between second and third when Harris caught the ball; as he had to re-touch second base in order to return to first, it’s no wonder he was out.

And here’s Riley, who explained his uncanny positioning to reporters by saying, “I think the only reason I was in the position that I was because I was screaming ‘One!’ and momentum just kept pulling me that way. And it ended up just being the right spot at the right time.”

Whether or not the Braves manage to win this series, that one was a play for the ages.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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