ATLANTA — The spark can come in the most unlikely — and painful — of ways.
Ronald Acuña Jr. was doubled over, surrounded by manager Brian Snitker and Atlanta Braves medical staff, the right fielder just plunked in the elbow by a 95.9 mph sinker from Philadelphia Phillies starter Zack Wheeler during the sixth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 of the National League Division Series. The right-hander Wheeler was dealing, having retired 15 of the first 16 batters he faced, and the Braves hadn’t advanced a runner past first base.
But the Braves weathered that moment, and the weather itself, after a three-hour rain delay. After a few minutes with his manager and trainers, Acuña stayed in the game, and suddenly Atlanta had its opening vs. the former All-Star Wheeler.
Two batters later, Acuña crossed the plate as Atlanta took its first lead of the best-of-five en route to a 3-0 win that evened the series as it shifts to Philadelphia, beginning Friday.
“He’s just kind of that electric guy that does have that penchant for igniting things especially this time of year when he gets on,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “It’s pretty good to get those guys coming in behind him.”
Acuña is going to stay in this game! pic.twitter.com/lTKqfnY80s— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 13, 2022
After the Phillies stole the series opener, the Braves could ill afford to fall further behind. Atlanta is a mere 2-9 in series in which it dropped Game 2, but are 13-7 when it takes the second game, including last year’s NLDS vs. the Milwaukee Brewers after losing Game 1.
Now it’s on to Citizens Bank Park — which will host its first postseason game since 2011 — with the question remaining as to who will get the start for the Braves in Game 3. Will it be rookie phenom Spencer Strider, who coming off his oblique injury? Will it be veteran Charlie Morton, who has the postseason pedigree but a 5.47 ERA vs. the Phillies this season?
For now, Snitker’s not saying.
“(We’re looking at) a few guys,” the manager said, drawing laughter. “We have some options.”
And now some momentum after a win where the offense rewrote its season long script, starter Kyle Wright dominated and Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson made the spectacular defensive play commonplace.
Let’s take Three Cuts after the Braves’ Game 2 victory.
1. Who needs power? Braves flip the script
Ground ball. Ground ball. Ground ball.
For a Braves lineup that hit more home runs than any team in the NL, and had the fewest games and the fewest wins across the majors without a homer, they rewrote that script over a three-run sixth inning.
“I think it’s the beauty of playoff baseball,” said shortstop Dansby Swanson. “Everything goes out the window this time of year. You’ve just got to find ways to make things happen. ... (Wednesday) is an example of that.
“Obviously, our pitching was spectacular. You can’t say enough about that and I felt like we made all the plays that we needed to make on defense. It was just an all-around great baseball performance. And come postseason, man, it’s all about pitching, defense and timely hitting. I felt we checked all those boxes tonight.”
Boxes may have been checked, but not the ones we’ve come to expect from these Braves.
An MLB-best 91 of their wins came when they homered at least once and they were 10-16 when they failed to homer, a .278 winning percentage that was 22nd in MLB and the worst of any postseason team. But they went small ball after Wheeler hit Acuña. Swanson drew a six-pitch walk and Matt Olson followed with an RBI single that hit off Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins glove to score Acuña.
Back-to-back singles from Riley and Travis d’Arnaud extended the lead to 3-0, with all three of those hits in the inning of the ground ball variety. Consider that another casting aside of those expectations that come from watching the last six months and 162 games. The Braves ended the regular season 19th in ground-ball rate (42 percent).
“There were some really good at-bats,” Snitker said. “It was tough sledding there for a long, long time. And we kind of, things went our way there with Matt’s hit and Austin’s. And Travis had just kind of three well-placed balls.”
Kyle Wright shoved on the postseason stage (again) pic.twitter.com/d5d88sdofo— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) October 13, 2022
2. All Wright, All Wright, All Wright
A day after their ace had the shortest and shakiest postseason start of his career, Wright followed with the kind of outing that’s fueled his breakout season.
The right-hander delivered six shutout innings, allowing two hits with six strikeouts and a walk as Wright danced his way out of trouble. It was a much-needed outing after the Phillies got to Max Fried for six runs, four of them earned, in Tuesday’s 7-6 loss.
Third among NL starters in stranding 78.9 percent of runners — trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Julio Urias (86.6) and San Diego Padres’ Joe Musgrove (79.8) — Wright found a response each time the Phillies reached.
Bryce Harper started the second with a double, but was stuck at third as Wright fanned Brandon Marsh to end that inning; J.T. Realmuto got no further than first after a one-out single in the fourth; and after issuing a leadoff walk to Marsh in the fifth, Wright struck out Jean Segura and induced a Bryson Stott pop out to end that threat.
Wright generated a 31 percent whiff rate on his 83 pitches, nearly five percent better than his season average, and had Phillies coming up empty on seven of their 20 swings on his curveball (35 percent), a rate that was a tick better than that pitch’s average (33.5). He had Segura bewildered in that strikeout, fanning him on three straight curves.
“My last couple of outings it’s been a little off,” Wright said of his curveball. “We spent a little extra time this week trying to get it back to where it was early in the year. And for the most part I was able to do that. Got a little more sweep to it.
“And to that at-bat, Segura, I was able to throw some really good ones to get him to chase off the plate. I have a lot of trust in it.”
Much has been made of the growth that Wright has shown over the last two seasons, and it was clear when stacked against the last time he started a postseason game. That came in Game 3 of the 2020 NL Championship Series vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers, when Wright didn’t even make it out of the first inning.
“Before I came in (to the interview room) I joked, I said ‘My last postseason start I think I went (2/3) innings and seven runs,” Wright said. “This was a good one for me. It’s a small thing but just kind of checking off another box.
“I had success in the postseason last year, but to do it as a start, that was pretty cool to me. I think I’ve worked on a lot of things this year. Really just goes back to confidence. I feel I had the confidence to pitch at this stage. They’re a really good lineup and I knew that. But I knew if I executed then I was going to give myself a chance. And I really believe that.”
If there was any question how the MLB wins leader was going to follow up his breakout, he answered it in emphatic fashion.
3. Making the spectacular commonplace
Get used to seeing Swanson’s over-the-shoulder grab and Riley’s tumble-over-the-tarp catch, because those defensive gems are about to become highlight fixtures.
Realmuto’s two-out, sixth-inning pop up seemed destined to drop in for a hit as the shortstop Swanson, center fielder Michael Harris II and left fielder Eddie Rosario converged on it in shallow left-center. The batted ball had a mere .120 xBA, but neither outfielder was going to be able to make the catch.
If Swanson couldn’t get to that ball, nobody was.
He made a spectacular catch, tumbling forward and extending his his glove, the ball inside, as he lay on his back.
“Well, I was trying to throw a flag on myself because I feel like I made it look way harder than it needed to be,” Swanson said. “I was running out there, and I felt like, maybe because it was it was a breaking ball, but it kind of like kept spinning away from me, and I slowed down just enough to check Rosario to see where he was so that we didn’t have a collision, and once he just kind of looked at me, like, ‘Hey, brother, it’s yours or nobody’s, I just went for it.”
It was a sensational play .. and then Riley followed with one of his own.
Bryson Stott’s eight-inning foul ball was headed toward the rolled up tarp along the third baseline and Riley, at a full sprint from third base, collided with the tarp as he hauled in the ball, his back smacking against it as he fell to the dirt. Riley jumped up and hit his chest as Eddie Rosario met him to celebrate.
Both were fantastic but which one was better?
“I’ll say (Riley’s) was better,” Swanson said. “I didn’t have to dodge a tarp.”
Olson, though, wasn’t so quick to pick sides in the debate.
“Couple of crazy catches,” he said. “Dansby going back, I think Rosario was going to have the play at it first. Rosario was pretty deep. He had to re-adjust get back on it and over the shoulder catch And then Riley going up against the tarp. Weird angle. Couple of great catches and that’s the kind of game it was tonight.”