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2023 NLDS Preview: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves

Phillies Braves

(Credit: Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Phillies Braves
The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have played in more high-stakes games than almost any other combination of teams over the last six seasons. What will the next three to five bring? (Credit: Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK)

2023 NLDS Preview: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves

When the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves met in the National League Division Series a year ago, the Braves were undoubtedly the favorites. Not only were they the defending World Series champions with an arguably better roster than the year before (led by the return of Ronald Acuña Jr.), but they were one of baseball’s model franchises. They had won the NL East every year since 2018 with a well-oiled machine cranking out quality prospects and crafty trades by the day. They were the standard.

For years, the Phillies had been unsuccessfully chasing them in all the ways the hard-luck losers always do. They spent big, overhauled their player development system (then overhauled it again), fired their manager again and again and again. Just making it to that stage was validation that something had changed, but there were no guarantees that would be enough.

Heading into this year’s highly-anticipated rematch, Atlanta is still the top dog. They blitzed through the 162-game slate, no late September chase to maintain division supremacy needed this time. But as they danced around the Citizens Bank Park pitchers’ mound when the East crown officially became theirs in mid-September, the feelings of dread that had defined the Phillies were no longer present.

The four games the teams played last October changed how this rivalry was viewed. Philadelphia blitzed a battered Braves pitching staff with a tidal wave on both sides of the ball and an avalanche of red towels. It revitalized the once-dormant Phillies franchise, legitimizing the team in the way they had been craving for years. The way the Braves already had in their tremendous run of success.

Losing this series won’t destroy the reputation of either team. Both are firmly recognized among the league’s elite. Whichever side prevails might be the favorite to go all the way. But if either gets caught looking ahead, the other is sure to provide the knockout blow in the latest revitalization of this rapidly reemerging rivalry.

GameDateProbable StartersTime (ET)TV
110/7Ranger Suárez (PHI) vs. Spencer Strider (ATL)6:07 p.m.TBS
210/9Zack Wheeler (PHI) vs. Max Fried (ATL)6:07 p.m.TBS
310/11Bryce Elder (ATL) vs. Aaron Nola (PHI)5:07 p.m.TBS
410/12Strider vs. TBD6:07 p.m.TBS
510/14Wheeler vs. Fried6:07 p.m.TBS

Philadelphia Phillies (90-72, 2nd in NL East, No. 1 Wild Card)

Strengths: They were on full display last October. In some ways, it’s better for the Phillies that they’re playing the Braves now as opposed to in the NLCS. One, the shorter the series, the better the odds are for the underdog. Smaller sample sizes are more conducive to random events, and while the Phillies winning this series would not be shocking, it is not statistically probable. Only needing to beat the Braves three times of four makes everything a little bit easier.

Secondly, the Phillies once again believe they are a team built for the challenges of a short series. Shorter rounds also put less of an emphasis on depth and more on star power. The Phillies certainly aren’t lacking for the latter. Each of the first six hitters in their lineup hit at least 20 home runs during the regular season, including Kyle Schwarber‘s 47. Against Atlanta’s elite pitching, hitting the ball out of the ballpark is the best way to win, although the Phillies did score seven runs in their Game 1 win over the Braves last year without hitting a single long ball. The five home runs they launched in their two home games that series is a point the Phillies would love to pick up on, though.

There are some teams that might get conservative or defensive against a juggernaut like the Braves. The Phillies are not one of them. Since Rob Thomson took over as manager in June 2022, the Phillies have been one of the league’s most aggressive teams on the base paths. It showed again in the Wild Card Series as the Phillies took the extra base on several occasions (and once ran into an unnecessary out at home plate).

Speaking of things repeating from last year, the Phillies throw the same first three starters at the Braves as they did in their 2022 postseason matchup. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola combined to allow three unearned runs (which could’ve been zero if for a different scoring decision on a misplay by Rhys Hoskins that was ruled a hit) in 13 innings and Ranger Suárez tightroped out of two bases-loaded jams in a brief but effective Game 1 start. The extra off day means the Phillies don’t have to turn to anyone else to start in this series. They can easily go back to Suárez on regular rest for Game 4 if they want to. The Phillies could also change it up and give Taijuan Walker or Cristopher Sánchez a look (perhaps piggybacking off one another or with Suárez).

Philadelphia’s biggest concern heading into last year’s matchup, the middle of its bullpen, has been fortified. The Phillies ‘pen throws a harder fastball than any other and contains numerous rusted options. Rookie Orion Kerkering‘s emergence could also be critical as the Braves have never faced the 22-year-old before.

Weaknesses: The matchup game matters, and it might not favor the Phillies in this series. Most of Philadelphia’s most vaunted relievers are lefties, and the Braves only have two left-handed bats for them to face in big spots (Eddie Rosario would likely be pinch-hit for if the Phillies bring in a lefty to specifically face him in a late-game situation). There’s also quite a bit of swing-and-miss in Philadelphia’s bats, which might not play well against Spencer Strider, to say the least.

Philadelphia’s lineup isn’t as deep as Atlanta’s either. Cristian Pache and Johan Rojas had some moments in the Wild Card Series but will face even tougher competition this time around (although Brandon Marsh should take Pache’s place in the starting lineup against righties). The Phillies had success against Atlanta’s bullpen last October, battering them for 10 earned runs in 18.1 innings. However, seven of those runs came against pitchers who may not be on Atlanta’s NLDS roster this time around (that number drops to five if Dylan Lee is healthy enough to go). So, it’s not as simple as just “do what you did last year” for the Phillies.

Atlanta Braves (104-58, 1st in NL East)

Strengths: Everything. The Phillies may have a lot going for them, but Atlanta can one-up them in nearly every department. The Phillies are feeling confident about their top two starters? Good luck touching Spencer Strider and Max Fried, a Cy Young contender this year and last year’s runner-up, respectively. They were both not at 100% entering last year’s series and the Phillies were able to take advantage. Fried is battling a blister, but all signs are that both will be good to go on schedule. If that’s the case, good luck.

Even if he’s not, stopping the Braves lineup is just as daunting, if not more. They’ve got seven players with 20+ homers, including three with at least 40 and Matt Olson‘s jaw-dropping total of 54. They’re not just a feast or famine team, either. Every regular is hitting at least .250 (six at least .280). Three are in double-digit steals, including Acuña Jr.’s jaw-dropping 73. It’s as well-rounded and elite of an offense as you can possibly find.

There’s just never a moment to rest against the Braves. Every single player who enters the game for them is capable of wrecking an opposing player’s stat line and changing the complexion of a contest.

Weaknesses: If there’s one area the Braves are clearly the lesser team, it’s pitching depth. Bryce Elder is clearly the worst starting pitcher in this series, essentially regardless of who the Phillies choose for Game 4. He isn’t atrocious but did have an ERA over five in the second half and his underlying numbers don’t look great.

The Braves have a solid collection of relievers. However, their problem is the opposite of Philadelphia’s — a lack of high-end lefties. A.J. Minter is excellent. But he won’t be able to face Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber every time they have a high-leverage at-bat. Brad Hand, who was on the opposite side of this series, quietly had a solid season. Righty Kirby Yates has reverse splits as well. But winning those matchups will be tricky. J.T. Realmuto‘s prowess behind the plate could also curb Acuña Jr.’s stolen base prowess.

Weak points against the Braves are almost impossible to find. If there’s one thing the Phillies can hang their hats on, though, it is last year. If the Phillies get off to a strong start, they could set in the “here we go again” narrative in the heads of the Braves and their fans. Atlanta is far too good and battle-tested to let the series slip away based on that factor alone. But it could play a role.

Here’s how the teams were viewed heading into last year’s series.

The Verdict

Just like last year, the key for Philadelphia is to win Game 1. That put the Phillies in the driver’s seat for good, as they felt extremely confident about at least splitting the next two games with Wheeler and Nola on the mound (they did indeed split them) and then took care of business in front of their home crowd.

Running it back will be much more challenging than the already difficult first series. Between illness for Fried, an oblique injury for Strider and Charlie Morton getting hit by a comebacker that forced him to leave after two innings, every Phillies win last postseason came against a diminished starter. That’s not to discount the Phillies’ success; they earned that series win last October. They have the pieces to do it again. But Atlanta just has so much more in its arsenal than every other team. They think they’ve learned how to solve the long-layoff riddle that contributed to last year’s demise as well.

Proving it, especially in the bedlam that will be Citizens Bank Park, is another thing. It should be an epic series between two of the best baseball has to offer. Ultimately, the Braves have been baseball’s best all season. This is a series they sort of need to have after going out with a whimper a year ago. There’s just too much talent on their side for that to happen again. Braves in five.

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