Michael Harris II saves Atlanta Braves’ game — and maybe season — with stunning play in NLDS Game 2

ATLANTA — There’s no place lonelier in a ballpark than center field. And when it’s the ninth inning and a game-altering ball is sailing over your head at more than 100 mph, there’s no place more terrifying, either.

They’ll be talking around here about what Michael Harris II and the Braves did Monday in Atlanta for a long, long time. Facing a zero-games-to-two deficit in the best-of-five NLDS heading to Philadelphia, Harris leaped halfway up the center-field fence, and the Braves instead evened the series.

After spending the first 15 innings of the NLDS in a peaceful slumber, the Braves finally woke up and joined the party the Phillies were in the midst of dominating. Atlanta had meekly surrendered Game 1, failing to score at home for the first time all year. Then Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler no-hit the Braves through 5 2/3 innings of Game 2. Given that Monday was the fourth anniversary of Atlanta surrendering 10 runs in the top of the first to St. Louis in a decisive NLDS Game 5, the omens weren’t promising.

But then the law of averages began to swing the Braves’ way, and Atlanta started hitting like a team that set offensive records up and down the lineup. Over three innings, the Braves methodically erased a four-run Philadelphia lead, scoring on one defensive bobble and two cinematic two-run homers to make it 5-4.

“We didn’t come out as hot,” Harris conceded after the game. “We came out slow, had a good amount of off-days. Took some time to get the rust off.”

In the top of the ninth, Philadelphia still had a chance to steal momentum, the game and, most likely, the Braves’ souls.

With one out in the inning, Bryce Harper — whom the Braves’ organist introduces with the themes of the Wicked Witch of the West and Darth Vader — led off first and drew a walk, representing the tying run. Nick Castellanos, who plays with chaos in his wake, worked the count to 2-2, then sent a four-seam fastball arcing deep into the Cobb County night.

If Castellanos’ ball had traveled 393 feet, we might well be calling the Phillies a team of destiny and dismissing the 2023 Braves as yet another band of Atlanta underachievers. But the ball traveled 392 feet, right into Harris’ glove, right against the 8-foot-8-inch-high, bright yellow cushioning.

“I just knew as a defender, I was going to do anything I could to make the play and get a glove on it,” Harris told Yahoo Sports in the clubhouse after the game. “I put my body at risk, and I was going to get it.”

He did. But the play was only half over.

Harper apparently didn’t have enough respect for Harris’ range because he rounded second and then realized that he now was the man on the island. Harris fired the ball back into the infield, where it skipped right past shortstop Orlando Arcia. But third baseman Austin Riley, who was backing him up, gathered the ball and fired it over to first an instant before Harper got back. Third out. Game over. Braves win.

“I threw it in as quick as I could,” Harris said, “and the rest, I guess they handled it.”

Harris said after the game that he didn’t see Harper. He just spotted a bunch of white jerseys and fired the ball back into the infield. Moments later, he saw what was unfolding and realized exactly what had happened.

“I looked at the fans out there,” he smiled, “and it kind of brought back memories of when I was in the stands cheering for this team.”

Outfielder Michael Harris II, right, celebrates with the Braves' other hero of Game 2, third baseman Austin Riley, after Riley's eighth-inning home run. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Outfielder Michael Harris II, right, celebrates with the Braves’ other hero of Game 2, third baseman Austin Riley, after Riley’s eighth-inning home run. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Usually you don’t pass the base. You stay in front of it, make sure it’s not caught,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said after the game. “But [Harper] thought the ball was clearly over [Harris’] head, didn’t think he was going to catch it.”

There’s something poetic in Harris making what, at the moment, stands as the decisive play of the Braves’ 2023 season. As a high schooler in nearby Stockbridge, he learned the finer points of the position from Marquis Grissom, the former Braves center fielder who caught the final out of the 1995 World Series. Harris grew up attending games at Turner Field, watching Braves legend Andruw Jones patrol center field. Now, Jones — who threw out the first pitch of Game 1 and was in the stands in Game 2 — is watching him.

“It’s one of those things you dream of, trying to be big in those moments,” Harris said. “Just trying to follow in his footsteps and be great like him.”

Harris wasn’t on the team for Atlanta’s 2021 World Series championship; he didn’t make his major-league debut until May 2022. But once in the majors, he validated every bit of the team’s faith in him. He won the 2022 Rookie of the Year award and established himself as the latest in a line of fans-turned-Braves, a list that includes All-Stars Brian McCann and Dansby Swanson.

The game-ending double-play isn’t the greatest play in Braves postseason history. Sid Bream’s slow-motion dash to win the 1992 NLCS will hold that spot forever — or at least until someone matches it in a World Series. But as evidence of the 2023 Braves’ explosive excellence, the play will live on in Truist Park highlight clips … as long as Atlanta wins the series, of course.

Five days from now, Money Mike’s Double-Up could be irrelevant, or it could be the moment when Atlanta reversed its fortunes. The series now travels to Philadelphia for two games, with a feel that no one saw coming. A split in which you salvage one game on the road has one vibe; a split in which you let a two-game road sweep slip through your fingers is something else entirely.

“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,” Thomson said afterward. “It’s a little disappointing, but hey, we’ve got home-field advantage now. And really, that’s what you’re looking for after these two games.”

The Phillies can now look forward to two games in front of their unhinged, ride-or-die crowd. The Braves now have momentum and the knowledge that they can battle back from the edge of the ravine.

This NLDS was always going to be a rock fight, but now it’s anyone’s series.

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