ATLANTA — The first 15 innings of the NLDS couldn’t have gone better for the Phillies.
After upsetting the Braves in Game 1, they took a four-run lead into the sixth inning of Game 2.
They had an ace on their hands with a fully stocked bullpen behind them. They would take out the best offense in baseball, one of the best lineups MLB has ever seen.
Then everything was resolved.
Zack Wheeler gave up a two-run homer to the last batter he faced, Travis d’Arnaud, with a single foul in the seventh inning.
Jose Alvarado came on and was retired three times in a row before being moved in favor of right-hander Jeff Hoffman, who would soon find his way to the top of Atlanta’s righty lineup. Hoffman hit Ronald Acuña Jr. with a pitch, induced a groundout by Ozzie Albies and took a 1-2 lead over Austin Riley. Hoffman needed one more hit to end the eighth inning with the Phillies up one, but Riley took full count and hit an 89 mph slider that hit the left-field wall too hard to give him a home run.
The game ended with Nick Castellanos hitting the ball deep to right center and Michael Harris II jumping to catch it against the wall. He scored back to the infield and the Braves doubled Bryce Harper from first base to close the infield.
4-0 lead in Game 2 of the NLDS. Sounds familiar, right? The same thing happened to Cliff Lee and the Phillies in Game 2 of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals, a series they lost in painful fashion.
Hoffman has performed very well this season, a key discovery for the Phillies front, which signed a minor league contract in opening week. He posted an ERA of 2.41 in 54 appearances and earned the trust of manager Rob Thomson as his middle-inning right fielder. Nearly half of his plate appearances came in dirty innings when men were on base. He got out of those jams time and time again.
The only runs Hoffman has allowed since Aug. 25 have been in Atlanta. He found himself in a similar situation on September 20 against the top-seeded Braves, and the Phillies also blew an eighth-inning lead that night when Albies and Riley reached him.
It derailed a dominant start by Wheeler, who held no hits for the Braves for 5⅔ innings and didn’t get an inning out until the fifth. He scored a career-high 10 points in the playoffs.
It’s been a season of deja vu moments for the Phils. Slow start. Low point close to Memorial Day. Return in June. Attack in the second half. Wild card round. Winning the first game in Atlanta against a team that had won over 100 games.
One detail the Phillies hoped would go differently was Game 2. They were sidelined a year ago in the same spot with Wheeler on the mound and a chance to send the Braves to the brink of elimination.
They will now go home with a 1-1 tie, just like they did in 2022 when they won the NLDS in four games.
By the end of Monday’s first inning, they had more runs and hits behind Wheeler than in the second game last year. Trea Turner doubled and scored on a single by Alec Bohm, then the Phillies loaded the bases with singles by JT Realmuto and Castellanos before Atlanta lefty Max Fried homered.
Realmuto took the lead, further beating the crowd, in the third inning with a two-run, opposite-field homer over the Braves bullpen.
The fourth series scored when Castellanos scored, stole second, advanced to third on an errant throw by d’Arnaud and scored on a sacrifice fly by Bryson Stott. The Phillies are on a postseason rampage. They are stealing bases 9-for-10 in four playoff games and 7-for-8 in the NLDS alone. They have stolen five extra bases by immediately responding to throws in the dirt.
It looked like a combination of starting pitching, small balls, and timely home runs would put them in a dominant position when the series moved to Philadelphia. Instead, they will board a plane home with a narrow margin, which might sound satisfying at the start of the series, but won’t be satisfying considering how close they came to landing on Monday night.
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