3 big questions for Philadelphia Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves NLDS showdown

Buckle up. It’s time for Philadelphia Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves, Round 2. It’s both the second round of this postseason — more on that later — and the second year in a row that the two NL East rivals have met in the October baseball colosseum. Last year, the Phillies squeaked into the playoffs, got on a roll and wiped out the 101-win Braves en route to the World Series — an upset with an exclamation point added by Rhys Hoskins’ bat-slam homer.

Well, now the teams meet again. Many of the circumstances look the same. The Braves are a juggernaut — 104 wins this time, easily division champs behind Ronald Acuña Jr.’s historic season and one of the best offenses MLB has ever seen. Matt Olson blasted 54 homers, Sean Murphy joined as starting catcher, and Austin Riley tallied the quietest 37-homer season on record. After a season-long display of excellence, it would be a disappointment if the Braves didn’t get to celebrate with a parade.

On the other side, the Phillies are again a wild-card team, but it feels different this time. Invigorated by last year’s pennant run, the Phillies have kept the unbuttoned, unbothered vibes but progressed into arguably a more well-rounded team. With Trea Turner in the fold, Bryce Harper plying his trade at first base and several young players arriving or improving up the middle, the Phillies accelerated away from the rest of the wild-card chase. Given the state of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching staff, it’s not unreasonable to think the Phillies actually pose the greatest threat to the Braves’ NL supremacy.

As Jayson Stark pointed out at The Athletic, this is only the third time in MLB history that division rivals have met in consecutive postseasons. The previous instances were unquestionable classics: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in 2003 and ‘04 and the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros in 2004 and ‘05. That’s the 3-0 comeback, the Carlos Beltran series, the Albert Pujols homer off Brad Lidge, the Aaron Boone homer.

Somehow, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to think this series will keep the lineage going. So let’s address three big questions to keep in mind as the NLDS begins Saturday.

Who beyond Spencer Strider is pitching for the Braves?

The Braves are the rightful favorites here, but they have a very obvious impediment to advancement. Heading into this series, young ace Spencer Strider is the only Braves starter who is both definitely healthy and definitely good. Max Fried, the 29-year-old lefty who has fronted this rotation in previous runs, is terrific but has been dealing with a blister. He pitched a simulated game Tuesday as part of Atlanta’s efforts to keep the team on the field and avert any potential bye-round issues that might or might not have contributed to last season’s Phillies defeat. Clearly, the hope is that Fried pitches either Game 2 or Game 3. Veteran Charlie Morton, the staff’s theoretical No. 3 pitcher, won’t be back for this series because of a finger injury.

So it’s Strider, maybe Fried (and maybe a compromised version) and then some questions for manager Brian Snitker and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos. Most likely, they will trust Bryce Elder with the third slot and hope that extra rest can reset him to his early-season self.

From Opening Day through June 22, the 24-year-old right-hander posted a shockingly good 2.40 ERA, despite middling strikeout numbers and a contact-oriented approach. In 16 starts after that, his ERA was 5.31, as the strikeout rate plummeted even lower and walks and homers caught up to him. It’s true that workload might’ve affected his balance on the tightrope that is his command-over-stuff approach, but it’s not clear whether the Braves can trust that to improve mightily in the playoffs.

Atlanta’s other options are rookie AJ Smith-Shawver (4.26 ERA in 25 1/3 MLB innings) or someone even less pedigreed, such as Allan Winans. Most likely, Snitker will lean on the bullpen to soak up more innings and hope his team can survive and get Morton back for the next round.

Are the Phillies just built for October?

Beating the Miami Marlins isn’t evidence of greatness, but the Phillies took care of business emphatically in the wild-card round, following a 2022 postseason in which they found the best versions of themselves at the same point of the season. There’s at least some heft building behind the idea that Dave Dombrowski’s stars-first rosters are more primed for winning in the world of the playoffs.

Success across 162 games and six months is fueled by having great players, yes, but it’s also heavily dependent on having marginally better answers for a litany of down-the-priority-list questions. Who’s our fill-in second baseman for three weeks in May? Who’s the 17th-best relief pitcher in the organization? How many guys on the 40-man roster can play an above-average center field? The Braves and Dodgers are perennial contenders because they, in their own ways, consistently ace those tests. The Phillies, as well as Dombrowski’s previous teams, have been more hit-and-miss on the long-term project of the summer, but the high-stakes, high-concentration challenge of the playoffs — the oral presentation, the one big paper — suits them perfectly.

With the marked improvement of Bryson Stott, who logged a 101 wRC+ in his second big-league season and walloped a grand slam against the Marlins, the addition and eventual resurgence of Trea Turner and the arrival of Johan Rojas in center, the Phillies deploy a postseason lineup with something approaching no weak spots. The fact that the Braves also did that all season (and will continue to do so for the next, oh, decade or so) doesn’t actually have any bearing on the result of this series.

In a short series, there’s a flattening effect. Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Riley, Olson and Murphy handily outplayed the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber-Turner-Harper-J.T. Realmuto-whoever else constellation in the regular season — and likely would over 25 or 50 more games. But they have only three to five games to decide this thing.

And when the relative importance of the 23rd-to-40th members of the organization is reduced, the Phillies suddenly stack up well against the Braves — and just about any other team in baseball.

Litmus test: Do you actually like the MLB postseason format?

OK, this is a meta question about the series, but it’s a question nonetheless. If the same progression of results from the NL wild-card series (No. 4 Phillies over No. 5 Marlins, No. 6 Diamondbacks over No. 3 Brewers) happened in the NFL, the top-seeded Braves would face Arizona, not Philadelphia. MLB’s format does not re-seed the competition after the first round, so the Braves effectively get a tougher road than the No. 2-seeded Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s not exactly an integrity issue, but this particular case provides an example of baseball’s best team being dealt a considerably more difficult opponent in a shorter series (best-of-five) with a narrower margin for error and a higher chance of randomness. In the moment, that won’t diminish anything — it is, in fact, more likely to heighten the pressure and amp up the drama — but whichever team falls could reasonably ask whether its regular-season accomplishments won it an appropriate level of posteason benefit.

Braves-Phillies looks like a tremendous series, appointment television. It would be both better and more befitting of the circumstances, all things considered, if it came in the best-of-seven Championship Series, like those classic Yankees-Red Sox and Cardinals-Astros matchups.

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