Fired-Up Phillies Bludgeon Braves In Another Series-Shifting Game 3
Rarely is there a quiet moment in the world of Bryce Harper. The 30-year-old has now been under a microscope for more than half of his life. Millions have dissected his every move across the entirety of his 11-year Major League career. They have seen the good and the bad. The calm, the screams, all of the emotions.
The only way to live such a life is for every move to be calculated. So, when Harper rounded the bases at Citizens Bank Park after launching the second series-altering three-run blast by a Phillie in Game 3 of the NLDS in as many years, everyone watched his eyes shift squarely in the direction of Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia. Harper had made a game-ending mistake two nights prior when he got too aggressive on Nick Castellanos‘ warning-track flyout in the ninth inning. It had given the Braves life in the series, and more importantly, the swagger they had lacked through the first 14 innings of this Division Series rematch.
It loosened Arcia up enough to talk a little trash about Harper’s blunder in the home clubhouse after the victory. The message was nothing out of the ordinary, the type of sarcastic jab Big Leaguers give to each other all the time. But Harper is not ordinary. After all, an ordinary person could not be Bryce Harper and handle all of the stress and persistent pressure that rises above what most stars face.
The day began with Harper and Castellanos walking into Citizens Bank Park wearing t-shirts decked out with various images of the University of Colorado and Deion Sanders. The former Brave takes nothing lightly and sees everything as motivation. After a two-homer, four-RBI performance that electrified Citizens Bank Park and moved the Phillies to the cusp of a second-straight NLCS appearance, it was evident Harper had done the same.
“It’s fun,” Harper said. “It’s a lotta fun. That’s what [baseball’s] all about.”
It was indeed a lot of fun for the Phillies on Wednesday evening. They clubbed a postseason-record-tying six home runs. Harper and Castellanos crushed two of them apiece. Last year, the Phillies turned the corner to contention with a nine-spot in this very juncture against this same team in this same ballpark. Really, the only thing different this time was both teams scored an extra run.
The details were eerily similar. Just like a year ago, Brian Snitker had a chance to pull his starter with two on and a dangerous slugger coming to the plate. Bryce Elder flummoxed the Phillies for two innings, then Castellanos took him deep on the second pitch of the third.
Pitching coach Rick Kranitz got on the phone to the bullpen just as Harper was stepping to the plate. The Braves did not have a lefty warming for Harper, who had been blown away by a high fastball in his first at-bat against Elder. He had praised the rookie Elder after a sparkling start against the Phillies in June, but Elder has struggled since. Perhaps the main reason he started was that Brian Snitker did not want 20-year-old AJ Smith-Shawver‘s seventh MLB appearance to be a start in front of the hostile Philadelphia crowd.
Kranitz set the phone down just after Harper took a 1-1 fastball off the outside corner. If any team knew the importance of keeping the Phillies faithful as quiet as possible, it was the Braves. A year ago, they were overwhelmed in the first two home postseason games at Citizens Bank Park in 11 years, outscored 17-4 after steamrolling down the stretch to snag the NL East title. There were no such dramatics this season. The Braves were the best team in baseball from start to finish.
Elder threw the most dangerous pitch possible to a lefty — an inside slider. It was likely supposed to break off the plate and jam Harper. Atlanta could have lived with a walk — second base was open and the Braves could’ve tried to buy time for the warming Michael Tonkin.
“He’s a Hall-of-Famer,” said Snitker. “I mean, he’s one of the guys that loves the stage. You put him in the spotlight, and he’s going to shine.”
The breaking ball hung over the plate. Then, it hung in the air for six seconds as the red towels erupted. Elder never turned to stare at it. Harper glared at Arcia, the only deviation from the home run routine he’s cultivated. Salute the bullpen. Point to the sky in sync with Dusty Wathan. Acknowledge the crowd. Make the handshake rounds on the way to the dugout. Create history and lifelong memories. The usual.
It was his moment, and Harper knows his actions send a message. It showed in his deadpan reaction to his pennant-winning home run last year. His glare at Arcia, replicated in the fifth when he launched another towering drive for his first career multi-homer postseason contest, was clear.
Mess with him, and the Phillies, at your own risk.
“There’s nothing like it,” Harper said of playing in Philadelphia. “I love this place. Flat out, I love this place. There’s nothing like coming into the Bank and playing in front of these fans.”
While Harper was the heart of the Phillies in their Game 3 rout, Aaron Nola was the backbone. Every start Nola makes could be his last with his team. No one has been here longer than Nola, a member of the Phillies organization for 3,415 days. He pitched into hard-luck trouble in the first inning on a pair of two-out singles. Atlanta put up a quick strike on a double by Ronald Acuña Jr. and a single by Ozzie Albies on consecutive pitches.
There have been times in his career, and even this season, where such developments could’ve broken Nola. Instead, he exited with two outs in the sixth inning and the Braves still stuck at that lone run. He has a 1.78 ERA in 25.1 innings over his last four starts, dating back to Sept. 19 at Truist Park. He tipped his cap to the standing faithful as they showered him with applause. It was another postseason masterclass by Nola, a player-of-the-game-level performance on a night where it was easy to forget, but important to remember.
“I want to soak it all in,” Nola said. He allowed one unearned run in six innings against the Braves on this stage a year ago. Atlanta has faced him 33 times, the most of any team. It didn’t matter in Game 3. “It was an amazing atmosphere. I tip my cap to [the fans].”
Nola will have to rely on his teammates to have another chance to do so. When this matchup was set in stone, Game 3 was always the one to win for the Phillies. Even with their ace Zack Wheeler against a blister-affected Max Fried in Game 2, this was always the night their starting pitching advantage loomed largest. They’ve already beaten Spencer Strider in this series, but he is a different pitcher than the one who stepped onto the mound here a year ago fresh from battling a quad injury.
But by having this game, the Phillies opened up appealing options. They used seven pitchers in Saturday’s Game 1 victory and six in last year’s Game 4 clincher. Each of their three most trusted relievers had Wednesday night off. With no game to play Friday regardless of how Game 4 goes, Rob Thomson can be aggressive with his bullpen again. Against a Braves team that tied the single regular season home run record, the Phillies joined Kyle Schwarber‘s 2015 Chicago Cubs as the only team to launch six homers in a postseason contest. It was an offensive outburst even more welcomed after letting chances to put Game 2 out of reach slip away.
There is still time for the Braves to make the Phillies regret that. But it will require doing something they have not come close to doing yet — winning a postseason game at Citizens Bank Park. For years, the Braves dangled the carrot of success over the Phillies like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. They knew what winning was like, and the Phillies did not. A year ago, the Phillies proved they were capable of flipping the script. Another win would change the default option of who holds supremacy in the division.
All of that will be secondary to the scene on Thursday night. Another sell-out crowd and national audience will flock to the flame of Philadelphia, the revitalized baseball haven, to see if that’s what’s in store. It’s not hard to figure out why. When Bryce Harper’s around, there’s always something to stare at.