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The Braves won everything you can last year. But can the nothing-to-lose Phillies pull off another upset? (Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports)

2022 NLDS Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies

The Braves won everything you can last year. But can the nothing-to-lose Phillies pull off another upset? (Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports)

2022 NLDS Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies

The last week of Phillies baseball has provided more closure than the previous decade. It wasn’t just that the Phillies clinched their first postseason berth since 2011 a week ago. And it wasn’t just that they followed it up with a Wild Card series sweep. But the storylines seemed like something out of a Hollywood script. Clinching a berth in the same ballpark they did eleven years ago on a first-pitch home run by Kyle Schwarber and dominant pitching performance by Aaron Nola. Taking out the Cardinals team that stunned them in the 2011 NLDS with sound defense and pitching. Nola overcoming his autumn struggles of years past. The kids providing big lifts when needed. Segura, who waited longer than any active player to reach the postseason, delivering a series-shifting hit in the ninth inning of Game 1.

This Phillies team has connected so well with the fanbase, and therefore, the franchise’s past. None of the players or coaches sat through the entire 4,000-plus day wait. Nola is the longest-tenured Phillie, but even he didn’t arrive until mid-2015. Even the first competitive team since the glory days of 2007-11, the 2018 team, has just four remaining players — Nola, Zach Eflin, Rhys Hoskins, and Seranthony Domínguez.

That team watched the Braves celebrate an NL East championship at Truist Park in person that could have been theirs if they didn’t fade down the stretch. The 2021 team endured the same fate last September, swept out of Atlanta and postseason contention from Sep. 28-30 in one of the most disheartening moments in recent memory.

An NLDS loss to the Braves, the defending World Series champions, would not bring as much dismay. The Phillies have already come so much farther than they did a year ago. They will host a postseason game for the first time since Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS on Friday. It would be disappointing if all of the excitement of the last week rapidly fizzled out, especially against such a familiar foe. But it would not offset all of the progress they have made in this incredible run.

But dismissing the Phillies’ chances would not just be unfairly discounting their success, but the talent they have that can push the Braves to the limit — maybe farther. However, the Phillies will need more from their offense. The Phillies had plenty of chances to tack on more runs than they did against St. Louis. However, they went just 2-12 with runners in scoring position against the Cardinals and left ten runners on base. The Phillies had a runner on third base with one out four times in the series but only drove him in once. Their at-bats were mostly good in those circumstances, but there are no moral victories in October.

Doing so won’t be easy, of course. Atlanta had the fifth-best ERA of any team in the regular season and have plus defenders all over the diamond. An injury to star rookie Spencer Strider complicates things a bit, though. Max Fried will start Game 1 against Ranger Suárez, both of whom had success in the season series. Fried had a quality start in three of his four starts against the Phillies and threw five innings of one-run ball in his other start. Suárez struggled in his first two of five starts against Atlanta before getting back on track late in the year. In consecutive starts against the Braves on Sept. 16 and 22, Suárez went six innings each time and allowed just one cumulative run.

From there, the Phillies will turn to Zack Wheeler on regular rest for Game 2 and Aaron Nola on an extra day’s rest for Game 3. It’s unclear if Strider would be able to start in this series or just be an option out of the bullpen. If he can’t start, there’s a significant drop-off to whoever pitches Game 3. The other Braves to make at least 10 starts this year — Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, and Jake Odorizzi — all have ERAs over four.

If the series goes at least four games, the Phillies’ starter is a total unknown. Bailey Falter had a great September, but Atlanta’s lineup is righty heavy and roughed him up on Sept. 24. They did the same to Kyle Gibson the next day, who looked gassed down the stretch. Maybe it’s Noah Syndergaard by process of elimination, but he’s made just one start and two appearances since Sept. 15 — a month to the date of Game 4.

The Phillies probably feel better about their bullpen depth, especially after encouraging Seranthony Domínguez in the Wild Card Series. Having only two trusted relievers won’t get you very far in October. An extra one would be massive, although the Phillies will be without David Robertson, who strained his calf celebrating Harper’s Game 2 home run. Actually.

If Strider doesn’t start, maybe the Braves use him in an Eflin-esque role, especially since their closer Kenley Jansen had an uneven finish to the season. Although not only does Raisel Iglesias also have experience in that role, he also has a 0.34 ERA in 28 appearances after being traded to Atlanta at the deadline. The Braves also have some quality lefties in A.J. Minter, Dylan Lee, and Tyler Matzek, who could face Schwarber or Bryce Harper in big late-game spots.

Harper’s importance is magnified in a longer series. He slugged the Phillies’ only home run of the Wild Card Series, and if that gets him right, everything about the Phillies becomes much more dangerous. Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto will also be counted on heavily given Atlanta’s left-handed talent. The Braves have clear advantages in center field, right field, third base, and shortstop against the Phillies. It’s imperative for Hoskins to at least play to a draw against Matt Olson, who the Phillies held to a .191/.267/.485 clip. He also went 1-4 with a single against Alvarado, who seems earmarked for him in big moments. Harper gives the Phillies a clear edge at DH. So does Realmuto at catcher and Schwarber in left. And it feels like Jean Segura will likely rise to the occasion again.

It all puts the Phillies in a surprisingly solid position against a team that won 14 more regular-season games than they did. All that matters is the next handful. The Braves are essentially a supercharged version of the Cardinals, with more depth in the bullpen and lineup. But it’s also a good matchup for Wheeler and Nola given Olson and Harris are Atlanta’s only two notable lefties. If the Phillies can get a split in Atlanta, which is easier said than done, their chances of winning rise exponentially. It will require the Phillies to avoid their potential pitfalls, which is much easier to do in two games than in three to five. If can win Game 1, suddenly they are sitting pretty.

But the Braves undoubtedly have the edge in a longer series. Even going from a best-of-three to a best-of-five could be enough to make the difference. However, there is a different energy around this Phillies team. Beating Atlanta would legitimize them in a way that would be impossible to write off. So, I won’t.

Tuesday, Game 1: Phillies 5, Braves 4

Wednesday, Game 2: Phillies 2, Braves 3

Friday, Game 3: Braves 3, Phillies 8

Saturday, Game 4: Braves 6, Phillies 2

Sunday, Game 5: Phillies 4, Braves 3

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