Phillies stun their division leader again to advance to NLCS

Rob Thomson didn’t bring any luggage with him when he drove to work in Atlanta on Thursday morning.

And it turns out he didn’t need to.

Almost a month after witnessing the Braves celebrating their division title at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies once again sent the shellshocked Atlanta team home early for the offseason.

The Phils eliminated the Braves in the NLDS, just like they did in 2022. For two consecutive years, the Braves finished 14 games ahead of the Phillies, yet it ultimately proved insignificant.

The NL East title was never up for grabs this season. The Braves took the division lead on April 1 and maintained it for six months. But the Phillies believe they are built for the intensity of postseason baseball and they continue to prove it. They defeated the Braves 3-1 on Thursday night to secure their spot in the NLCS, where they will have home-field advantage against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Phillies were aware of their capabilities to reach this point again, although many obstacles occurred during the eight-month-long journey from spring training to the end of the postseason. Injuries plagued the team, with Rhys Hoskins tearing his ACL in camp, top pitching prospect Andrew Painter requiring Tommy John surgery, and Bryce Harper missing the first month due to his own Tommy John surgery. However, the Phillies had a deep roster comprising veterans in their prime, such as Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler, and Aaron Nola. They also had young, emerging talent like Bryson Stott, Brandon Marsh, Johan Rojas, Alec Bohm, Cristopher Sanchez, and Orion Kerkering. Plus, they had reclamation projects like Jeff Hoffman and Cristian Pache.

Reaching this stage once again was not a coincidence.

“When we entered spring training, I emphasized the expectations that the world had for this club,” Thomson stated on Thursday afternoon. “But that’s just noise to me. I made it clear that all you need to do is understand my expectations, which are to respect the game, prepare, compete, be unselfish, and be yourself. If we do those five things, we will win because we have the talent.

“And I think these guys truly stay true to themselves. The new additions like Marsh and Sosa bring a great energy with them. They are unselfish, and there is no complaining. They are all about the team.”

The Phillies made a splash in last year’s postseason and showcased their confidence, timely hitting, and dominant pitching, which ultimately led them to Game 6 of the World Series. While more was expected from them in 2023, their victory over the Braves in this manner was still surprising.

The Braves possessed one of the most potent offenses in baseball history, setting the major-league record with a .501 slugging percentage and tying the record with 307 home runs.

However, the Phillies limited them to just three home runs in the entire four-game series.

The Braves scored 146 runs in the first inning, 60 more than the league average, and had a 78-25 record when scoring first.

Yet, they failed to score a single run in the first inning of the NLDS.

The Phillies never trailed in any complete inning throughout the series. While they didn’t completely dominate the Braves, they controlled the NLDS from start to finish.

“I wouldn’t call it cockiness, but rather extreme confidence,” Thomson explained. “Individually, they believe in their abilities, and collectively, they believe they will excel as a team. There is a closeness and it shows.”

In Game 4, Castellanos hit two home runs, just as he did in Game 3. His performance is simply out of this world.

Facing all-world MLB strikeout leader Spencer Strider on Thursday night posed a considerable challenge. However, the Phillies managed to hit three home runs off of Strider — two by Castellanos and one by Turner — and emerged victorious in the series.

Once again, Ranger Suarez, known as Mr. No Heartbeat, delivered a stellar playoff performance by allowing just one run over five innings. In the series, he pitched a total of 8⅔ innings, gave up only one run, and allowed five men on base. Suarez has given up only four earned runs in his last seven starts and 33 innings against the Braves.

As a Phillie, Suarez has started five playoff games and has won every single one of them. He also closed out the 2022 NLCS at home against the Padres.

The Braves had late opportunities for a comeback. In the seventh inning, Jose Alvarado walked two batters with two outs, and Craig Kimbrel loaded the bases with a free pass to the first hitter he faced. With likely 2023 MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. at bat and the go-ahead run on first base, Kimbrel gave up a deep line drive to left-center field. Rojas, a Gold Glove-caliber player in the making, instinctively tracked the ball and made an incredible catch at the warning track to save the game, the series, and potentially the season.

Seranthony Dominguez, Alvarado, and Kimbrel were all utilized in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, respectively. In the ninth, Thomson initially sent Gregory Soto to face right-handed hitters, but Soto allowed runners to advance to the corners with no outs. He was then replaced by Matt Strahm. Three outs later, the Phillies celebrated their victory once again.

Partying in the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park never gets old for this team, but the Phillies are aware that there is still much work to be done. Merely making it to the NLCS or the World Series is not enough.

If they reach the World Series, they may potentially face a rematch against the Houston Astros, who are one of the last two teams remaining in the American League. However, this time, the Phillies would have home-field advantage, as both teams finished with identical 90-72 records, and the Phils won the head-to-head series 2-1.

“It’s funny how things have turned out,” Thomson mused. “The similarities between this year and last year are almost eerie. It’s uncanny. I just hope it gets even better than last year.”

The NLCS is set to begin on Monday at 8:07 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park. Thanks to their four-game win over the Braves, the Phillies can start the series with their ace, Wheeler, on the mound in Game 1.


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