Opportunity Knocks, and the NLCS-Bound Phillies Answer

Philadelphia Phillies
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, you eat the bear. Sometimes, the bear eats you.

And at still other times, you eat it against the left center field wall. For the second day in a row Michael Harris II, who despite his youth is already one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, came off worse in a confrontation with a fence. On Friday night, the W.B. Mason sign knocked the ball out of his mitt, turning what would’ve been a spectacular catch into an RBI double for Bryce Harper. And not 24 hours later, Harris, the ball, and a neighboring State Farm ad came together to produce an inside-the-park home run for J.T. Realmuto.

With an 8–3 win in front of a bloodthirsty home crowd, the Phillies completed an upset victory over the rival Braves and are on their way to the NLCS. The inside-the-park home run wasn’t the play that made the game; in fact, by win probability, it was only the fourth-most impactful dinger of the afternoon. But if you watch enough baseball, you’ll learn to recognize signs that this just isn’t your day. For the Braves, surrendering the first inside-the-park homer by a catcher in postseason history, minutes after their starter got knocked out of the game by a line drive… signs don’t come much clearer than that.

As much as the Phillies’ 9–1 victory in Game 3 looked like the first nail in Atlanta’s coffin at the time, things could’ve gone a lot worse. The Braves, by dint of falling behind early, didn’t use any of their top four relievers: Collin McHugh, Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter, and Kenley Jansen. Charlie Morton hasn’t been as good in 2022 as he was in years previous, but to date he’d made four postseason appearances with his team facing elimination and won them all.

The Phillies, by contrast, started Noah Syndergaard, who’d pitched one inning in the playoffs to date and hadn’t been the Syndergaard lauded as a future Cy Young winner in about four years. If the Braves got to him early and Morton could give them four or five innings, they could hand it over to their top relievers and likely head back to Cobb County with the series tied and a substantial advantage in quality of Game 5 starter. The Rhys Hoskins bat spike would’ve been downgraded from historical watershed moment to cool GIF.

Instead, it was the Phillies who jumped in front early. Alec Bohm lined the second pitch of the bottom of the second off of Morton, eventually forcing the veteran right-hander to leave the game early. But before he did, he left a curveball down and in to Marsh. The Phillies’ new center fielder isn’t especially a low-and-in hitter, but any left-handed hitter worth his salt will do what he did to that pitch: golf it off the facing of the second deck in right field for a home run.

From there, the Braves chased the game all afternoon. Phillies manager Rob Thomson, no doubt cognizant of the disadvantage he’d have in Game 5, made no secret of the fact that in the right circumstances this would be an all-hands-on-deck scenario for his pitching staff. If the Phillies led, his top relievers — Zach Eflin, José Alvarado, and Seranthony Domínguez — could all be summoned for multiple innings of work. So could presumptive Game 5 starters Zack Wheeler and Ranger Suárez. The earlier the Braves fell behind, the harder it would get for them to come back.

“It’s good to jump out to a lead in a game like this,” said winning pitcher Brad Hand. “It puts a little pressure on them to get some runs and come back. The bullpen did a phenomenal job just fuckin’ attacking them and going right after them.”

Thomson said after the game that the plan was to get Syndergaard through the order once and figure it out from there. He pitched around a wallscraping solo home run by Orlando Arcia and retired every other batter he faced, including Ronald Acuña Jr., twice by strikeout. The first time, Syndergaard set him up with three sinkers middle-in before getting him to chase a curveball away; the next, he reversed his pitches but kept the location the same: curveball and sinker in, then a four-seamer just on the wrong side of the outside corner that induced Acuña to chase.

“I thought he was outstanding. A lot of soft contact, other than Arcia’s home run, a lot of soft contact,” Thomson said. “He pounded the strike zone. I thought he was good and gave us what we needed.”

Atlanta’s offense amounted to a trio of solo home runs by Arcia, Matt Olson, and Travis d’Arnaud. That phrasing usually signifies that the team in question only scored on those home runs; in Game 4, the Braves managed just one other baserunner all afternoon.

The Phillies, as they have throughout this run, managed to combine sequential offense with power. While the Braves had four hits and didn’t bat once with runners in scoring position, Philadelphia strung together three walks and 13 hits, three of them home runs, and went 4-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Every starter reached base; seven of them reached base at least twice.

“Very rarely do you see one person be able to carry a team through a postseason. It takes a complete effort. It takes the young guys, it takes the veterans,” Realmuto said after the game. “We talk about it of after every series. We always ask, who is the MVP of this series? Who is the reason we got here? And it’s always hard to answer that question for us because so many guys contribute. There’s not one person carrying the team. It’s top to bottom.”

Baseball being as unpredictable as it is, it’s hard to tell sometimes whether opportunism leads to good luck or the other way around, and the Phillies didn’t make it easy to tell which way the causal arrow was pointing. They benefited from some unusual plays; the carom on Realmuto’s inside-the-park home run was the most obvious, but there were others. A miscommunication between Acuña and Harris on a ball to the gap turned a likely out into a Brandon Marsh double in the top of the fourth. Acuña also bobbled a Texas Leaguer to right center in the sixth. (Between those plays, the 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, and a slow backup on Realmuto’s homer, Acuña had a forgettable afternoon to say the least.) Realmuto also legged out an infield single to extend the sixth-inning rally that put the game out of reach.

The Phillies, on the other hand, recorded 15 of their 27 outs by strikeout, didn’t walk anyone, ran the bases aggressively but not recklessly, and fielded the ball cleanly. (That last has not been something this infield could take for granted all season.) There simply weren’t that many bounces for the Braves to take advantage of.

It’s not just literal bounces; the Phillies’ all-hands-on-deck pitching plan ended up not being necessary. They didn’t use any starters out of the pen, and none of their relievers faced more than six batters or threw more than 20 pitches. A big part of that was Hand being able to pitch a scoreless fifth inning. One of the premier relievers of the late 2010s, his 2.80 ERA in the regular season obscured a year in which he’s been walk-prone and inconsistent. Of the seven full-time relievers the Phillies carried in the NLDS, only mop-up man Nick Nelson had a worse regular-season WPA.

But the fifth inning could not have shaped up better for Hand. The bottom of Atlanta’s order features two lefties with a severe platoon split (Harris and Eddie Rosario), separated by Arcia (career 74 wRC+), and William Contreras, who kills lefties. That was the perfect spot in the lineup to steal three outs with Hand, and the opportunity to use him there fell into the Phillies’ laps.

“[Thomson] told me before the game today to be ready in the first or second inning, so I was ready the whole game,” Hand said. “The bottom of the order, I knew they had a bunch of lefties, so I knew that might be a spot where I might come in. But it’s one of those situations where everybody’s ready.”

Hand struck out Harris, then not only survived Contreras but also struck him out. A first-pitch single by Arcia was oddly fortuitous for the Phillies; had Braves manager Brian Snitker chosen to pinch-hit for Rosario with the right-handed Robbie Grossman, Thomson could have removed Hand and inserted a right-handed reliever to regain the platoon advantage. (Grossman, a switch-hitter, hits lefties much better than righties.) But as it was, Phillies pitchers threw exactly one pitch all afternoon with a man on base. Rosario lined it to center to end the inning.

Hand was quick to remind me that no victory is inevitable until it’s completed, but from about the sixth inning on, this game seemed over. Only one team was forcing its way into opportunities and taking advantage of them. And as unlikely as that would’ve seemed at the end of May, or during the nerviest days of early October, the Phillies are headed to the NLCS. Sometimes the bear eats you, but sometimes, you eat the bear.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

21 Comments
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bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago

15 K’s and one measly single, sort of defines baseball in the modern era. About as boring as a playoff game can be if you are a fan of baseball but not a fan of either team.

Easyenoughmember
3 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Tell us how you really feel. You digging the ~18 inning 0 – 0 astros/mariners? Is that old school real baseball? 16 hits at this point.

bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago
Reply to  Easyenough

Absolutely not! Both games are further examples of the boring modern game where pitching dominates to a point that is detrimental to the game. Whether it is one single and 15 K’s this afternoon or a second long scoreless extra inning strikeout fest in a week this evening I find this type of modern baseball less compelling than the game that featured contact, steals, hit and run plays and more emphasis on defensive skill instead of hiding lack of range behind shifts and a zillion K’s.

bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago
Reply to  Easyenough

I hope you saw what really great baseball looked like in the 9th inning of the Guardians thrilling come from behind win over the Yankees. I saw 5 singles deliver 3 runs with the sustained drama and tension that only baseball can deliver riding with every pitch. This is what more contact can deliver.

Bruce Schwindtmember
3 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Sad for you

bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Schwindt

In what way? I still enjoy watching the game even if I don’t think it is as entertaining as it was when there was a better balance between hitting and pitching. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a great game. It just doesn’t offer as many opportunities for brilliant defense, which I love, or sustained drama and excitement like the last of the 9th in the Guardians-Yankees game.

Bruce Schwindtmember
3 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

You are not a fan. Move in if you think baseball is boring.

bosoxforlifemember
3 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Schwindt

Some games are in the same category as watching Michigan play UConn in football. The same type of imbalance that is infecting baseball.