Braves face a must-win after Phillies’ Bryce Harper creates another Game 3 nightmare

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PHILADELPHIA — When Marcell Ozuna struck out with two runners on base to end the first inning, then struck out again with two on to end the third inning, it felt like it might come back to haunt the Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday night at Philadelphia.

But there was nothing to foreshadow what was about to happen next, which was a bit of history repeating itself with these two teams. Brutal history, from the Braves’ perspective, as a six-run third inning propelled the Phillies to a 10-2 rout before an ecstatic and raucous crowd at sold-out Citizens Bank Park. The loss put Atlanta in a win-or-it’s-over situation in Game 4 on Thursday.

A year ago, the Phillies used a six-run third inning in Game 3 to knock Spencer Strider out of the game and roll to a 9-1 win, then closed out the series the next day, the 87-win wild-card team abruptly eliminating the 101-win Braves from the postseason in just four games, one year after the Braves had won the World Series.

This year, the 90-win wild-card Phillies are trying to do it again to the six-time defending NL East champion Braves, whose 104 wins led the majors. They rocked Bryce Elder in the third inning Wednesday — Atlanta seemed tardy with the first call to its bullpen — and now the Braves must win Game 4 at Philadelphia to force a Game 5 in Atlanta on Saturday.

“Obviously we’d rather be on the flip side of this,” said Matt Olson, who led the majors in home runs and RBIs this season, but has neither a home run nor an RBI in the first three games of the series for a team that’s been outscored 17-7 in the series. “But I’m sure we won two games in a row at some point this season, so we know it’s possible.”

Not if they don’t start hitting a lot better than they have during the series, with the exception of the sixth through eighth innings of Game 2 when the Braves scored five runs including two-run homers from Travis d’Arnaud and Austin Riley to overcome a four-run deficit in a 5-4 win.

“We just haven’t really gotten the ball rolling offensively,” Olson said. “But it’s crazy how quick something like that can happen. Continue to have our at-bats, and we know the kind of lineup we have.”

The Braves tied a major-league record with 307 home runs during the season, but Bryce Harper’s three homers in the series are one more than the Braves have as a team. In fact, both Harper and Nick Castellanos each had as many homers (two apiece) in Game 3 as the Braves have in the series. And each of them hit a homer off Elder in the six-run third inning, which Castellanos led off with a homer on a 2-2 slider up in the zone on the inner part of the plate.

Two hits and four batters later, it seemed surprising that Elder was still in the game, and not nearly as surprising when Harper obliterated a thigh-high hanging slider, raising the decibel level at Citizen Bank Park to, say, a mid-’70s concert by The Who.

“Going into the third inning, I thought maybe he’d go five,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Elder, who struggled in the second half of the season and especially in his last three starts. But Elder cruised through the first two innings with four strikeouts and the minimum six batters faced.  “He looked like his old self. His stuff was really good. It just kind of went quick.”

It went so quickly that Braves decision-makers didn’t seem ready to get the bullpen going before it was too late.

“The last inning, his third inning, he just lost his command a little bit,” d’Arnaud said. “And they’re such a great offense, they were ready to go, and they didn’t miss any of the mistakes that he made. It happened so quick. Bryce (Harper) crushed that one ball and put them up by (4-1).  It happened in the blink of an eye, and they capitalized from there.”

It must’ve felt like déjà vu for returning Braves in the third inning when the floor fell beneath Elder. A year ago, Strider mowed down the Phillies in the first two innings in Game 3. But Strider, coming off an IL stint for an oblique strain, saw his velocity drop in the third and he got knocked out of the game amid a six-run blitz that included Rhys Hoskins’ three-run homer and bat slam.

“Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out who I faced the day before — so no, that wasn’t crossing my mind,” Riley joked. “I think it was more of, we knew it was going to be a tough battle coming in here. The beauty of it is, we’ve got Strider on tomorrow. Get one tomorrow and then go back home and try to finish this thing up. Just try to have a short memory, I guess is the best thing we can do tonight.”

This time, the Braves have a healthy Strider facing a team against whom he’s posted an 8-0 record and 1.90 ERA in eight regular-season games. The Phillies have handed him two losses in two playoff games. He pitched well in Game 1 last week – seven innings, five hits, two runs (one earned), two walks, eight strikeouts — but got no run support against Phillies starter Ranger Suárez and six relievers. It’ll be Suárez starting again Thursday, with a rugged and mostly rested Phillies bullpen.

Elder breezed early behind a steady diet of sinkers and sliders down in the zone or below it, inducing weak contact and getting plenty of whiffs. But in the third, trouble began with the homer by Castellanos, which gave him homers in three consecutive plate appearances against Elder, including two on Sept. 20. Castellanos’ game-tying homer Wednesday came on an 88.6 mph sinker.

“I don’t know what Castellanos is seeing right now off me; he’s just seeing beach balls,” Elder said. “Harper, I really had no intention of throwing (that pitch) in the zone, and it just … I don’t even know. But it’s playoff baseball, you miss a pitch and you’re down 2-1 in the series.”

Brandon Marsh followed Castellanos with a single on a 2-2 slider left over the middle and at the knees, and the Braves still had only Michael Tonkin getting loose in the pen, stretching but not yet throwing. Neither of the left-handers, A.J. Minter or Brad Hand, was getting ready, even though Harper was lurking, four batters away, with none out in the inning.

With only two lefties, Snitker said he didn’t want to use either that early in the game.

“Because it’s going to come back around,” Snitker said. “It’s tough that early to use one of them because you’re going to get stuck, I mean, at least probably two more at-bats, (Harper) having to face right-handers. And, two, the way Bryce was throwing, I was thinking, man, he was really good. And the slider was good. His change-up was good. And it just kind of … I don’t know.”

After the Marsh single, Elder induced a pop-up and a groundout before Trea Turner hit a two-out single on a full-count, knee-high 90 mph sinker over the plate. Snitker then left Elder in to face Harper, an elite power hitter any time but an absolute monster in postseason play. Harper made him pay for the decision.

Harper obliterated a 2-1 pitch, a thigh-high 85-mph hanging slider, scorching it at 109.5 exit velocity. Citizens Bank Park was now throbbing with the combined volume of its leather-lunged denizens and ear-splitting PA system. The Braves suddenly trailed 4-1.

“I was just hoping maybe that we’d make a pitch on him and he’d pop a ball up,” Snitker said, “or if we walked him unintentionally, that would have been fine.”

If Hoskins’ bat slam was the iconic moment of the Phillies’ 2022 postseason, an early candidate this October for that distinction, from the Phillies’ perspective, was Harper homering and staring down shortstop Orlando Arcia as he rounded second base. This was in response to Arcia’s “Atta-boy, Harper” comment and laughter within earshot of reporters in the postgame clubhouse Monday after Game 2 in Atlanta. Two reporters, one from Philadelphia and one from Washington, reported the comments.

Arcia was mocking Harper to teammates about the Game 2-ending double play that began with Michael Harris II’s leaping catch of a Castellanos drive before crashing into the center-field wall. Harris quickly fired a throw toward second base — in the chaos, Harris didn’t know that Harper had not tagged up at first base but had instead run around second base — and the ball, after skipping past Ozzie Albies, was scooped up by Riley, who fired to first to double up Harper.

The Phillies saw the comments. Harper glared at Arcia after both homers.

“Everybody’s competitive that we play against, and I just really enjoy those moments and the opportunity to play this game and have those moments,” said Harper, acknowledging the comments provided a bit of added motivation. “I mean, anytime anybody says something, right? I mean that’s what it’s all about.”

Most Phillies fans certainly knew about the comments, judging from the boisterous boos accorded to Arcia every time he came to the plate Wednesday, boos that were louder than for any other Braves including stars like Ronald Acuña Jr, Olson and Riley, who’ve done the most damage against the Phillies during the regular season, when Atlanta won five of six games in two series at Citizens Bank Park.

Arcia is their new villain, much as Harper has long been with Braves fans.

“I feel like whatever is said in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse,” Arcia said through an interpreter.

With the crowd roaring after Harper’s homer, Snitker still didn’t remove Elder until after two more batters — an Alec Bohm single and Bryson Stott walk. And in came Tonkin. Tonkin had a 2.55 ERA while limiting opponents to a .195 average and .555 OPS in 20 appearances through July 5, but a 6.25 ERA in 25 regular-season appearances after that. He had a 9.49 ERA in his final eight appearances and was charged with at least one run in all but one of those games.

But it was Tonkin who got the call in a seemingly still-winnable game Wednesday, a game that wouldn’t seem winnable much longer. The first batter he faced, J.T. Realmuto, lined a two-run double to left field on a 2-1 sinker that Tonkin left up in the zone and in.

A year ago, the Phillies closed out their series over the Braves with an 8-3 win in Game 4, preventing the series from returning to Atlanta for a Game 5.

“We know they’re really good, and they’re not going to fall down or die or anything like that,” Harper said. “They’re a really, really good organization, a really good team, and we’ve seen that all year from them. But we have a crowd that’s 45 (thousand) strong, and we’re very excited to go into tomorrow and play a great game.”

The Philadelphia crowd mockingly did the Braves’ tomahawk chop and war chant in the late innings, and chanted “We want Strider!” near the end of the game.

The Braves need a win to prevent a repeat of that 2022 NLDS story. Or else the winningest team in the majors this season, with the most powerful offense in generations, will have won more than 100 games for the second season in a row, only to be eliminated after four postseason games.

“We’ve watched Strider can do,” Olson said. “We love having him on the mound. Hopefully, he comes out and sets the tone early, and we get that offense rolling.”

(Photo of Orlando Arcia and Bryce Harper: Eric Hartline/USA Today)

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