ATLANTA — The Phillies had a chance Monday night to take a commanding lead over the Braves in the National League Division Series.
They were four outs away from putting Atlanta in a spot where it would have had to win twice in Philly, then again in a must-win game started by Zack Wheeler in order to stave off elimination.
Instead, the Phillies flew home Monday night with a split — a result that would have sounded satisfying before the series began, but not as much after taking a four-run lead into the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 2.
“No, you wanted to win both games, obviously, against a really good team,” said Wheeler, who was dominant until the bottom of the seventh. “I guess we are happy with a split but we probably should have won that game.”
They lost, 5-4. The Braves, who tied the major-league record this season with 307 homers before being shut out in Game 1, hit two-run shots in the seventh and eighth innings to stun the Phillies.
The Phils scored once in the first inning and twice in the third. They chased starter Max Fried (96 pitches) after four innings. They manufactured another run in the fifth when Nick Castellanos singled, stole second, advanced to third on an errant throw and scored on a Bryson Stott sacrifice fly.
Everything was coming up Phillies.
Wheeler walked Ronald Acuña Jr. with two outs in the sixth. The Braves’ only baserunner to that point reached on a fielding error by Trea Turner in the second. Ozzie Albies followed Acuña with a single to right field and Acuña scored when Turner failed to cleanly glove Castellanos’ throw back to the infield.
Wheeler was in a sixth-inning jam but ended it by striking out Austin Riley. In an odd way, that might have cost the Phillies. Left-hander Jose Alvarado was warm in the bullpen to face MLB home run leader Matt Olson should Riley have reached. Olson would have represented the tying run and manager Rob Thomson wanted a lefty on him.
But when Wheeler finished the sixth with the Phillies still leading by three runs, Thomson decided to send him back out. Olson singled to begin the seventh, and after Wheeler struck out his 10th batter of the game in Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud took him out to left field for a two-run homer that cut the Phils’ lead to one.
“It’s frustrating, but I kind of let them get the momentum. It’s my fault,” Wheeler said. “I let them right back in the game.
“As well as I pitched, I let them get the momentum and that’s tough, especially in the playoffs. Momentum’s a big part of it, we saw that last year.”
The Braves ended up winning the game on Riley’s two-out, full-count home run off Jeff Hoffman in the bottom of the eighth. Hoffman has seldom struggled in 2023, but the only runs he’s allowed since August 25 have come in Atlanta, two on September 20 in a late blown lead and two more Monday night.
There was a base open when Riley was up. Had Hoffman walked him, the Phillies would have brought lefty Gregory Soto in to face Olson.
“I was trying to throw a good pitcher’s pitch with a base open and obviously not for that to happen,” Hoffman said. “Good hitting team, they’re going to get theirs, but I have to do a better job of not letting that happen, using extra bases and doing my job.”
The game ended on a dramatic defensive play reminiscent of Endy Chavez in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Bryce Harper walked to start the top of the ninth. With one out, Braves centerfielder Michael Harris II, one of the game’s best defenders at any position, jumped against the wall to rob Castellanos of extra bases. He fired back toward the infield and the Braves doubled Harper off of first base to close out the win. Harper had gone all the way around second and was unable to retreat to first in time.
“He made a good play,” Harper said. “I probably shouldn’t have gone past second base, but I made a decision and I’ll live with that.”
As brutal as Monday night was for the Phillies, as much as it conjured memories no Phils fan wanted to relive of the blown 4-0 lead in Game 2 of the 2011 NLDS, the series is far from over. The next two games are at Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies should have the pitching matchup in Game 3 with Aaron Nola opposing either Bryce Elder, A.J. Smith-Shawver or an opener. If the series does shift back to Atlanta for a must-win Game 5, they’d have Wheeler on the bump.
“We’ve got home-field advantage now, and really, that’s what you’re looking for after these two games,” Thomson said.
“It’s a little disappointing. You get up 4-0 on these guys and you had some opportunities to break it open, and you didn’t, and they come back. We didn’t score in the last four innings of the game.”
Has the momentum shifted? Harper doesn’t think so.
“You absolutely want to come in and go 2-0, but we did our job, we went 1-1 and we’re going back home to play two in front of our home crowd and I think we’re all looking forward to that,” he said.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world. They’ve got to come in and beat us.”
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