ATLANTA — The Phillies couldn’t have looked better through the first 15 innings of the National League.
After beating the Braves in Game 1, they entered Game 2 with a four-run lead in the sixth inning.
Their ace was on the mound, with a loaded bullpen behind him. They shut down the best offense in baseball and one of the best lineups ever in MLB.
Then everything unraveled.
Zach Wheeler gave up a two-run homer to the last batter he faced, Travis d’Arnaud, with one out in the seventh inning.
Jose Alvarado retired three straight games before being replaced by Atlanta right-hander Jeff Hoffman. A pitch from Hoffman hit Ronald Acuña Jr., setting up an Ozzie Albies grounder and a 1-2 lead off Austin Riley. Hoffman needed one more hit to end the eighth inning with the Phillies leading by one run, but Riley ran up the count and hit an 89 mph slider that grabbed too many bases in left field. went over the wall, resulting in a leadoff home run.
As the game ended, Nick Castellanos passed the ball to deep right-center and Michael Harris II jumped up to catch it against the wall. He hit back in the infield, and the Braves double-teamed Bryce Harper at first base to seal the game.
A 4-0 lead in Game 2 of the National League was destroyed. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 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 heartbreaking fashion.
Hoffman has been so good this season that he was a big find for the Phillies front office, and he was signed to a minor league deal in Week 1. He posted a 2.41 ERA in 54 games, earning the trust of manager Rob Thomson and becoming the go-to right-hander in the inning. Nearly half of his appearances came in “dirty innings” with men on base. Time and time again he escapes these difficulties.
Since Aug. 25, the only run Huffman has allowed has come against Atlanta. He was in a similar position against the No. 1 Braves on September 20, a night when the Phillies also lost an eighth-inning lead when Albies and Riley attacked him.
That spoiled a dominant start for Wheeler, who went 5⅔ innings without a hit against the Braves and didn’t allow a ball out of the infield until the fifth inning. He struck out a career-high 10 runs in the postseason.
It’s been a season of déjà vu for the Phillies. A slow start. Lows near Memorial Day. Turnaround in June. The second half surged. Wild card round sweep. Beating a team that had won over 100 games in the first game in Atlanta.
One detail the Phillies hope will be different in Game 2. They were shut out in the same spot a year ago, and Wheeler was on the mound with a chance to push the Braves to the brink of elimination.
Now, they’ll go home with a 1-1 tie, just like they did in 2022 when they won the NFC title in four games.
At the end of Monday’s first inning, they trailed Wheeler by more runs and hits than they did in Game 2 last year. Trea Turner loaded the bases, Alec Bohm singled and scored, and the Phillies followed with singles by JT Realmuto and Castellanos. The bases were loaded and Atlanta left-hander Max Fried escaped.
Realmuto extended the lead and further crushed the crowd with a two-run homer off the Braves bullpen in the third inning.
On the fourth play of the game, Castellanos scored on a solo shot to steal second, d’Arnaud’s errant pass moved him to third and Bryson Stout’s sacrifice fly scored. The Phillies are making a wild playoff run. They stole nine of 10 bases in four postseason games and seven of eight in the NLDS alone. They added five more bases by reacting immediately to a pitch in the dirt.
It looked like a combination of starting pitching, small ball and timely home runs would put them in a dominant position when the series shifted to Philadelphia. Instead, they’ll board their flight home with just one split, a result that might have sounded satisfying at the start of the series but probably not so good considering how close they came to landing on Monday night.