After a blowout loss in Game 3, the Atlanta Braves have their backs against the wall against the Philadelphia Phillies in the Division Series. The game started well enough for the Braves who made the late decision to go with Bryce Elder as their starter Wednesday night. Atlanta jumped out to a 1-0 lead as Elder retired the first six hitters he faced.
The thinking coming in to Game 3 was that Elder might turn the lineup over at most twice and no matter what, he would be on a short leash. Things turned quickly in the third inning when Nick Castellanos hit a solo home run to lead off the inning. Brandon Marsh followed with a single. There was movement down in the bullpen at this point, but no one was up and throwing.
Elder retired Johan Rojas and Kyle Schwarber, but then allowed a single to Trea Turner. There was no left-hander up in the bullpen and Elder stayed in to face Bryce Harper in a pivotal moment. Of course it didn’t go well as he left a slider out over the plate that Harper put in the seats for a three-run home run to put Philadelphia in front 4-1.
As bad as that situation is, it is still a manageable situation. A three-run deficit heading to the fourth inning isn’t insurmountable. Still, the Braves didn’t have anyone ready to go in the bullpen so Elder stayed in and allowed a single to Alec Bohm and then walked Bryson Stott.
If Elder was truly on a short leash then the bullpen would have gotten up after the homer by Castellanos. At the very least, someone is throwing after Marsh singles. However, Brian Snitker said after the game that he was thinking that Elder might be able to get through five innings which explains why the team was slow to react to get the bullpen busy.
“After going into the third inning, I thought maybe go five,” Snitker said of Elder. “He looked like his old self. His stuff was really good. It just kind of went quick.”
The bullpen didn’t start throwing until after Harper’s home run. Hence why Elder stayed in to face two more batters.
“No, not really. I mean, I just — you know, he had two outs and one guy on, I think, in the inning. It is a process,” Snitker said.
That move would prove costly as Michael Tonkin entered and promptly allowed a two run double to J.T. Realmuto to push the lead to 6-1. Like Elder, Tonkin struggled over the final weeks of the regular season and there was a question as to whether he would even be included on the postseason roster. He entered in a big spot and saw what was a manageable deficit go to a much less manageable one.
When asked about the decision to go with Tonkin, Snitker said that he is the guy that can get ready the fastest and also alluded to that being his role.
“Because he’s the guy that can get loose quicker and that’s kind of the guy we were in the game that we’ve been using,” Snitker said. “You can second guess everything we do. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the right move. We had Tonkin up for Max the other day and that’s a particular point in the game.”
Snitker is right about second guessing, but his strategy was suitable for a regular season game in May. A little more urgency is needed for Game 3 of a Division Series in an opponent’s stadium. The Braves didn’t decide on Elder as the starter until just before they left Atlanta for Philadelphia on Tuesday. He got off to a tremendous start, but was given more rope than the situation called for. They then chose to go with arguably their weakest reliever in what could prove to be the biggest moment of the season.
Tonkin allowed a leadoff double to Marsh in the fourth and then retired Rojas before giving way to Brad Hand, who struck out Schwarber and Turner to end the inning. Snitker wasn’t asked point blank about why Hand wasn’t used to face Harper in the third, but he alluded to only having two left-handers in the bullpen as part of the thinking.
“Yeah, because it’s going to come back around,” Snitker said when asked about the lack of a third lefty. “t’s tough that early to blow that or to use one of them because you’re going to get stuck, I mean, at least probably two more at-bats, of him having to face right-handers.”
“Two, the way Bryce was throwing, I was thinking, man, he was really good,” Snitker added. “The slider was good. His changeup was good. It was the third inning of the game with a lot to cover on the back end of it.”
Again it sounds like more of a regular season way of thinking. The game was on the line at that point. Hand did end up allowing a solo home run to Harper to start the fifth inning so who knows what the outcome might have been. Still, by just trying to coax the game into the later innings, they insured that the later innings wouldn’t matter.
Adding to the frustration, the Braves had just taken the lead against Nola in the third inning and appeared to be getting to him. He reemerged though in the fourth with a 6-1 lead and nothing else that he did really mattered. The Braves’ offensive struggles continued. After improving their strikeout rate significantly during the regular season, they have struck out 30 times over the first three games of the series. They have three extra-base hits. The two homers in Game 2 and a double by Ronald Acuña Jr. in the third inning Wednesday.
“We didn’t swing the bats that well today. Nola was really good, again,” Snitker said. “We’ve been an offensive team and in two of the three games in this series, we haven’t been. So hopefully we come out tomorrow and swing the bat, score runs and put ourselves in the position to get this thing to a Game 5.”
As bad as this loss feels, the Braves still aren’t in the worst position. They will need to flush this one quickly, but will have Spencer Strider going in Game 4. A win would force a Game 5 Saturday and a rematch between Max Fried and Zack Wheeler.
At the end of the day, the Braves have been thoroughly outplayed in this series by the Phillies. They are fortunate to have a chance to tie the series because if not for some late game heroics in Game 2, this series could already be over. That is why the decisions made early in Game 3 sting as much as they do. They didn’t play this game like their backs were against the wall. There is a chance that things still wouldn’t have worked out had they pulled Elder and gone to more of a high leverage reliever. Still, they would have given themselves a chance.