We’ve gotta talk about it — again. The last time y’all heard from me in this particular format, we were talking about how the Atlanta Braves were busy pulling off dramatic come-from-behind victories against the Chicago Cubs in pursuit of the best record in baseball. Here we are in the Postseason where the Braves have indeed clinched the best record in baseball but right now, that’s in the past. What matters now is what they do with it and for 14 innings over a two-game span in the NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies, they weren’t doing much with that advantage.
I’m not going to lie to y’all at all: That first game made for extremely grim viewing. It was the type of loss that really didn’t sit well with me — especially when you consider that Atlanta had gone through all 81 home games during the regular season having avoided getting shut out, only for it to happen in their very first home game of the Postseason. It didn’t sit well with me as a fan so I can only imagine how the players felt and how it must’ve been very tough to just put that type of loss out of sight and out of mind in order to focus on the upcoming task at hand.
Game 2 was looking just as grim through the first five innings. That was a 14-inning scoreless streak for the Braves to start the Postseason and it was truly mortifying to witness it. All credit must be given to Zack Wheeler, who looked like a world-beater for the first six innings of that start. All you need to do is take one look at what I was posting on my personal Twitter account during the middle-portion of the game to see how I felt and I’m sure that my feeling of dread wasn’t isolated, either. This Atlanta lineup that had seemingly scored at will for the majority of the 2023 season had gone ice cold at the worst possible moment and while they’ve had a history of comebacks this year, the four-run deficit sure felt like 40 with the way Wheeler was dealing out there.
Then the sixth inning happened, which is when Ronald Acuña Jr. worked his way on base with a six pitch walk. This was at a point in the game where Atlanta simply getting baserunners was a minor victory, so you can imagine the relief when Ozzie Albies finally recorded the first hit of the game for the Braves. Just as quickly, that relief turned into a small bit of joy when Trea Turner made a meal out of the throw back into the infield and Acuña took advantage of the mistake to score. After 14 dreadful innings at the plate, the home team was finally on the board.
That little spark ended up being exactly what the team needed. From that point forward, Atlanta's bullpen knuckled down and shut down Philadelphia's offense from the sixth inning onwards. Kirby Yates, Joe Jiménez, Pierce Johnson and A.J. Minter all deserve credit for coming up big and doing their part to keep Atlanta in it after Max Fried departed after four innings. Once again, it was just a matter of the bullpen keeping this lineup within arm's reach of the opposition as long as they had outs to play with.
In this case, the scenario was that Atlanta's lineup heading into the seventh inning had six outs to finally put their mark on this NLDS. As we all witnessed, the Braves finally got a chance to do some damage. Philadelphia left Zack Wheeler in for the seventh inning, Matt Olson greeted him with a leadoff single and then Travis d'Arnaud delivered the home run shot that everybody had been waiting on in not-so-patient fashion. Suddenly, the four-run lead that felt like a 40-run lead was just a normal, regular, one-run deficit. The team had life. They'd taken some heavy shots from Philadelphia's pitching staff but they got up before the count of 10 and finally took a couple of rounds on the scorecard. This was a real fight again.
The eighth inning rolled around and once again, it was Ronald Acuña Jr. getting things going after he got hit by a pitch with one out to reach base. Ozzie moved him over to second with a productive out and then the 40/70 Man got his first steal of the Postseason to really get the crowd into it. Now the Braves were just a hit away from bridging a gap that seemed impossible to traverse maybe half-an-hour ago. Fortunately for everybody at the ballpark and the fans watching at home, Austin Riley wasn't just satisfied with a hit. He wanted everything and he got it.
The feelings of dread and angst were replaced with delirium and a remembered resolve. Now it was time for Raisel Iglesias to get the final three outs to complete the late turnaround but he did enter the game with his personal sleep paralysis demon being on first base. A.J. Minter walked Bryce Harper to lead off the ninth, which honestly may have been a realistic best-case scenario when you consider Harper's history not just against the Braves but against Iglesias, himself. Iglesias was up to the task once he did eventually enter the game, as he got JT Realmuto to fly out and then he got Nick Castellanos to fly out for the second out.
Oh, you thought I was going to just gloss over the fly-em-out/throw-em-out that ended the game, huh? Oh no. Absolutely not, dear reader. That's the whole reason why we're here! Let's start with the obvious and applaud Michael Harris II for making yet another fantastic catch in center field. He's been building up a fantastic portfolio of highlight-reel catches and this one is going to be the main event in any reel that you see from this point forward. The batted ball from Castellanos had an xBA of .610 and would've been a dinger in at least five MLB ballparks, so it truly was an insane catch from Michael Harris just to begin with.
Then we have the play from Austin Riley. I'm going to go old-man mode here in case we have some readers who may not have been watching baseball for all that long but it's important to bring up this play from the 2001 Postseason.
If we're talking analytics, Derek Jeter was never an elite defender — shoot, some metrics would say he was a bad defender. However, if we're talking in terms of "that boy nice,” Jeter solidified his legacy as one of the most tenacious defenders in the game with this play where he basically went across the diamond and took an errant throw and flipped it home just in time to save a run. OAA and DRS don't care about stuff like that but we're all human and seeing a play like that makes you feel something.
That's how I felt when Austin Riley suddenly came into view once the throw from Michael Harris reached the infield. There was so much going on with that final play that it was simultaneously absurd and the most sensible thing in the world that Ozzie Albies would whiff on the cutoff throw so Austin Riley could field it, zip a throw to first place where Matt Olson would nab it to double off Bryce Harper and end the game while Raisel Iglesias did his usual save celebration right behind Olson.
OAA has Austin Riley tabbed as a bang-on average defender in 2023 at 0 OAA. DRS has a much rosier view of Riley's defense as he finished 2023 at 9 Defensive Runs Saved. None of that matters right now since in the eyes of everybody who saw that play, Austin Riley just became a star player on defense out there and he earned it, too. He had incredible presence of mind to notice that Harper had gotten too aggressive, motion to Harris that he wanted the ball and then getting the ball and making a perfect throw to finish off the play and win the game. That's the stuff that Postseason baseball is made of and it's the type of play that won't be forgotten for a long, long time if the Braves make a deep run in this Postseason.
While a 1-1 split heading to Philadelphia isn't exactly ideal, it's a hell of a lot better than what the alternative was looking like after the first five-and-a-half innings of this game. Heading to Citizens Bank Park for the next two games with what is surely going to be an incredibly hostile atmosphere is surely going to be tough but the Braves should be heading to Philly riding a wave of confidence. The offense has finally gotten into the series and the pitching has held up and gotten the job done for the most part. If Atlanta's pitching staff (led by what will probably be Bryce Elder in Game 3 and Spencer Strider in Game 4) can keep that crowd out of the game and the Braves offense can pick up where they left off in Game 2, it really starts to feel like Game 2 could be the catalyst for the Braves going forward.
All it took was the Braves remembering who they were — or maybe we just needed to remember who they were. This team has dug themselves out of some serious holes in the past (and the very recent past, at that) and have repeatedly shown that they have resiliency and a short memory span. Both of those traits go a long way when it comes to baseball — whether it's the long slog of the regular season or the quickdraw crapshoot that is the Postseason. They'll have to keep on showing signs of both traits as the series moves on to Philadelphia and we'll have to remember it as fans, ourselves. We probably won't, but that's the beauty (and anxiety) of Postseason baseball.