by Julian Spivey
The Atlanta Braves and its fan base must find themselves in déjà vu again as the team, which won its division by a whopping 14 games over the Philadelphia Phillies, finds itself playing against the red-hot Phillies for the second straight year in the National League Division Series.
Despite winning the division in 2022 by 14 games over the Phillies, the Braves were thoroughly dominated by the Phillies in the NLDS last year being eliminated in four games.
I have rough news for Braves fans this year. It’s not going to be easy facing this ballclub in October.
The Braves were the best team in baseball in 2023 from the very beginning of the season. The team slugged a record-tying 307 home runs this season and has, without a doubt, the most firepower of any offense in the entire game. However, pitching wins in the playoffs, especially in a shorter series like the best-of-5 NLDS and the Braves' pitching has looked a little sloppy toward the end of the season, and the team’s best pitcher Max Fried, who missed a bulk of the regular season, is facing a blister problem on his throwing hand that may or may not be fixed heading into the series. The Braves are also without their most veteran presence on the mound in Charlie Morton, who certainly would’ve taken the ball in game three of the series. The Braves are going with second-year stud Spencer Strider on the bump in game one and he was one of the N.L.’s Cy Young Award favorites for most of the season but had a few hiccups in the second half where he allowed a splurge of runs in bunches. He won’t be able to get away with doing that in the postseason and the Phillies offense is fairly high-powered itself, as Strider certainly remembers from the last postseason when they knocked him around. Fried is an uncertainty in game two with that blister issue. Then it’s probably a bullpen game for the Braves in game three and back to Strider on Fried on short rest for the remainder of the series, which is always an iffy proposition. The Braves bullpen, led by closer Raisel Iglesias and veterans A.J. Minter, Joe Jimenez and Kirby Yates was solid for the majority of the season, but at times can also be shaky, especially as of late.
Meanwhile, the Phillies have a pretty good 1-2-3 punch at the top of their rotation, which will feature Ranger Suarez, who was 4-6 with a 4.18 ERA (but capable of being better) this season, in game one. Game two will most likely feature Zack Wheeler, who thoroughly dominated the Miami Marlins in game one of the Wild Card round with 6.2 innings in which he allowed only one run and struck out eight batters. Game three would likely see Aaron Nola on the hill for Philly. Nola, was even better than Wheeler in the NLWC, with seven shutout innings of three-hit ball.
Now, the Braves' offense is FAR better than the Marlins, but these pitchers all had a lot of success and experience last season leading the Phillies to the National League pennant. The Phillies also have a strong bullpen bolstered by Craig Kimbrel and Jose Alvarado. I really think with the uncertainties of the Braves pitching staff, mostly Fried’s blister and a likely bullpen game in the mix, that the Phillies have the pitching advantage in this series.
Now, as I mentioned, the Braves have a superior offense to the last team the Phillies faced and that includes a whopping fiver hitters who had 30-plus homers this season and three of which had 40-plus homers, including the majors leader in first baseman Matt Olson, who hit 54. Right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. had 41 homers and 106 RBI to go along with his league-leading 73 stolen bases, and he is the best player of any team in this postseason, no matter what MLB.com will try to tell you. Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna got to the 40-homer mark on the final day of the season with a two-homer game that also got him to an even 100 RBI on the season and he comes into the playoffs hot.
The Braves also have third baseman Austin Riley (.281, 37, 97) and second baseman Ozzie Albies (.280, 33, 109) who would be the best offensive player on a great many teams in the league to contend with.
The Phillies' offense is led by a couple of the most exciting players in the game in first baseman Bryce Harper who hit .293 with 21 homers and 72 RBI in somewhat limited action this season (he missed around 40 games) and shortstop Trea Turner who hit a disappointing-for-him .266 with 26 homers and 76 RBI. Turner was also a perfect 30-for-30 in stolen bases this season so it would behoove the Braves pitching staff to keep him off the basepaths. Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber is always one of the scariest hitters in the game, but at least you know he’s either going to hit a homer, walk or strikeout – though if he hits enough homers (he had 47 on the season) good luck keeping the team down. Right fielder Nick Castellanos also had a nice comeback season for the Phils with 29 homers, a team-leading 106 RBI and hit .272.
If the Phillies' pitching staff can keep the Braves’ offense under five runs per game during the NLDS I honestly think the Phils are going to pull off the ridiculous feat of upsetting a team that was 14 games ahead of them in the standings for the second straight year. Doing so this season would be even more impressive than last season.
If I may drop the objectivity of a journalist for just one second, the Braves are my favorite MLB team and have been since I was an eight-year-old and the Phillies are the one team I did not want to see the team face this postseason.
Prediction: Phillies in 5
Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 7 @ 5 p.m. (CST) on TBS
Game 2: Monday, Oct. 9 @ 5 p.m. (CST) on TBS
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 11 @ TBD (CST) on TBS
Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 12 @ TBD on TBS (if necessary)
Game 5: Saturday, Oct. 14 @ TBD on TBS (if necessary)