Phillies Playoffs

Bye-bye, Braves: Phillies stun their division leader again to advance to NLCS

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Rob Thomson didn't pack a bag for Atlanta before driving to work Thursday morning.

And now he won't need to.

Nearly a month after watching the Braves celebrate their latest division title at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies sent a shellshocked Atlanta team home early for a second straight winter.

The Phils ended the Braves' year in the NLDS, just as they did in 2022. Two years in a row, the Braves finished 14 games better than the Phillies. Two years in a row, it proved meaningless.

At no point this season was the NL East up for grabs. The Braves took a division lead on April 1 and held it for six months. But the Phillies feel they are built for the sprint of postseason baseball and continue to prove it. They beat the Braves, 3-1, on Thursday night to head right back to the NLCS, where they will have home-field advantage against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Phillies knew they had the talent to reach this point again, but a lot can go wrong over the course of baseball's eight-month grind from spring training through the end of the postseason. And a lot did go wrong. Rhys Hoskins tore his ACL in camp. Top pitching prospect Andrew Painter, counted on to fill out the Phillies' rotation, injured his elbow and eventually needed Tommy John surgery. Bryce Harper missed the first month recovering from his own Tommy John surgery. Ranger Suarez didn't debut until mid-May because of an elbow issue. Jose Alvarado missed two months with separate bouts of elbow inflammation. Aaron Nola didn't pitch up to his standard.

But this team has so many pieces. Veterans in their prime like Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler and Nola. Hungry, young, emerging kids like Bryson Stott, Brandon Marsh, Johan Rojas, Alec Bohm, Cristopher Sanchez and Orion Kerkering. Reclamation projects like Jeff Hoffman and Cristian Pache.

Reaching this stage again wasn't a coincidence.

"When we went into spring training, I talked about the expectations that the world has on this club," Thomson said Thursday afternoon. "And that's just noise to me. I said all you need to do is understand what my expectations are. And that is you respect the game, you prepare, you compete, you're unselfish and you be yourself. If we do those five things, we're going to win because we just have the talent.

"And so I think these guys are really themselves. The people we've brought in, the Marshes, the (Edmundo) Sosas, all these guys have this great energy around them. They're very unselfish, there's no bitching, there's no complaining. They're all about the team."

The Phillies crashed the postseason party a year ago and rode a wave of confidence, timely hitting and often overpowering pitching to reach Game 6 of the World Series. More was expected from them in 2023, but beating the Braves in this manner was still a surprise.

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

The Phillies held them to three homers in four games.

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

They didn't score at all in the first inning of the NLDS.

The Phillies didn't play a complete inning from behind the entire series. They didn't quite dominate the Braves, but they controlled the NLDS from start to finish.

"I wouldn't say it's cocky, I think they're very confident," Thomson said. "Individually, they're very confident, and they're confident that they're going to play as a team. There's a closeness there and that comes out."

Castellanos homered twice in Game 4, just as he did in Game 3. He doesn't seem to be inhabiting planet Earth at the moment.

The degree of difficulty on Thursday night was considerably higher against all-world MLB strikeout leader Spencer Strider. The Phillies homered three times off of Strider — two from Castellanos, one from Turner — and beat him twice in the series.

Suarez, Mr. No Hearbeat, turned in another strong playoff performance, allowing a run over five innings. He pitched 8⅔ innings in the series, gave up one run and put five men on base. He's allowed four earned runs in his last seven starts and 33 innings against the Braves.

Suarez has started five playoff games as a Phillie. They've won all five. He also closed out the 2022 NLCS at home against the Padres.

The Braves had two late chances at a comeback. In the seventh inning, Alvarado walked two 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. up and the go-ahead run at first base, Kimbrel gave up a loud line drive to left-center field. Rojas, a Gold Glover in the making, instinctively tracked it and jumped at the warning track for a game-saving, series-saving, potentially season-saving catch.

After using Seranthony Dominguez, Alvarado and Kimbrel in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, Thomson tried to get Gregory Soto through the ninth against right-handed hitters but he put runners on the corners with nobody out and was relieved by Matt Strahm.

Three harmless outs later, the Phils Danced On Their Own one more time.

Partying in the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park never gets old for this group, but the Phillies know there is still considerable work to do. Just returning to the NLCS or to the World Series won't suffice.

And should they return to the World Series, it could very well be a rematch with the Houston Astros, one of the last two teams left in the American League. Only this time, the Phillies would have home-field advantage because both teams finished with identical 90-72 records and the Phils won the head-to-head series, 2-1.

"It's funny how that's worked," Thomson said. "It's almost eery how very similar the entire year last year is to this year. I t's just uncanny. I hope it gets a little bit better than last year."

The NLCS begins Monday at 8:07 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park. Beating the Braves in four games rather than five means the Phillies' ace, Wheeler, will be on the mound in Game 1.

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