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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Phillies, flashing style and power, clinch NLCS berth and end Atlanta’s season

The Philadelphia Phillies ousted the Atlanta Braves from the playoffs, earning a spot in the National League Championship Series.

By Alan Blinder

There are not all that many places that would so eagerly seize a visiting team’s signature, contentious chant and turn it into a rhythmic, derisive eulogy for a season.

But the faux Native American war chant known as the “tomahawk chop,” often celebrated in Atlanta and repeatedly condemned as racist most everywhere else, pulsed through the stands of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Saturday. There were a rival’s misfortunes to mock.

The Philadelphia Phillies, seeking to clinch a trip to the National League Championship Series, were surging early. If there was to be a dethroning of the franchise that won last year’s World Series, there would be an afternoon of taunting by fans, too.

The barbs and provocations starting in the second inning proved not to be premature: The Phillies used daring baserunning and a glut of power to beat Atlanta, 8-3, in Game 4 of a NL Division Series. Their win, beneath a brilliant Philadelphia sky with the soaring cityscape framed behind the outfield fences, ended the best-of-five showdown and gave the Phillies a berth in the NLCS for the first time since 2010.

Philadelphia’s insistent October march into this year’s NLCS, which will begin Tuesday and will pit the Phillies against the San Diego Padres (TBD, Fox/FS1), has not been a wholesale matter of luck. Instead, the Phillies — overcoming a regular season marked by a managerial dismissal, a third-place division finish and a scraping into the playoffs — have embarked on a methodical disassembly of some of the sport’s powers.

The St. Louis Cardinals, the Central Division champions? Swept — in St. Louis, no less — in a wild-card round. The Braves, the reigning World Series winners? So thoroughly bamboozled in the division series that anyone could be permitted to wonder whether the Phillies were actually the ones with 101 regular-season victories (and not 87).

“We ran into a really hot team, pretty much,” said Atlanta manager Brian Snitker. “They were hitting on all cylinders. They were playing great baseball. They got big hits. They shut us down offensively, and I think all the credit goes to the Phillies.”

Atlanta, one day after watching a rookie starter get rocked, confronted its first elimination game since 2020 and deployed one of its most seasoned pitchers to try to stave off an early playoff exit. Charlie Morton would bring, Atlanta hoped, the beguiling curveball that he had learned to rely on during a brief stint in Philadelphia in 2016, the very pitch that had helped make him a fearsome master of postseason pressure. Entering the ballpark Saturday, he was 5-0 in playoff elimination starts.

But Saturday, no pitch would do more to betray Morton or to buoy Philadelphia. One in the second inning was rocketed back, hitting his elbow. Two batters later, with Jean Segura at the plate, another yielded a single that put runners on the corners.

Brandon Marsh, a center fielder who had been hitless in the division series, entered the batter’s box. Morton threw a curve for a called strike. Four fastballs followed and moved the count to 2-2. Morton threw his breaking ball.

It edged toward Marsh. He made contact, the crack of the bat summoning the sellout crowd to thunder. Someone in the stands caught the ball 398 feet later, around the time Marsh pumped his fist after he rounded first. Ronald Acuña Jr., the Atlanta right fielder, had stopped his pursuit before he reached the warning track.

More curveballs got Morton out of the inning, but he would not face another batter. The comebacker had been too much, although Snitker said an X-ray showed no damage. Orlando Arcia had homered for Atlanta in the top of the third inning, and the Braves entrusted a mere two-run deficit to Collin McHugh.

But the man at the plate, Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto, is not like many other catchers, now or ever. Trained as a shortstop but nudged into catching by a Marlins scout, he tied for fourth in the National League in triples this season and was one of two NL players to homer at least 20 times and steal at least 20 bases. (Iván Rodríguez is the only other MLB catcher to have achieved the feat.)

On a 1-1 count, he tagged a slider deep into center field, where Michael Harris II could not keep pace, and the ball slammed back toward the outfield grass, rolling and rolling toward right as Realmuto stormed the base paths.

Realmuto passed first, of course, and then second. He rounded third, a one-man stampede against a usually sterling outfield and an All-Star catcher. He dove home. Safe, for the first inside-the-park home run by a catcher in postseason history.

Matt Olson, the Atlanta first baseman, narrowed the margin to two runs in the fourth when he homered to right. But the Phillies used a series of singles to add three runs of their own in the sixth before Travis d’Arnaud, Atlanta’s catcher, hit a solo home run to lead off the seventh.

Not to be outdone, Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia designated hitter, slugged his third postseason home run on a 1-1 count in the eighth.

For Atlanta, the season’s conclusion was jarring, if historically unsurprising. No Atlanta team with 100 regular-season wins or more has ever captured a World Series. In 1999, for instance, 103-win Atlanta outlasted the New York Mets in the NLCS and then was swept by the New York Yankees in the World Series.

But the 2022 Atlanta team, swept not once this season, never seemed able to muster offensive firepower in a series that plenty of people had figured would pit the Braves against St. Louis. They did not homer in two of four games. Strikeouts came by the dozens. Runners in scoring position could stand along the base paths nearly assured that they would not, in fact, score.

The Phillies, though, are arguably the most surprising team still standing in baseball. On the last day of May, they stood at eight games under .500. A 66-46 run followed. It was only last Monday that the Phillies announced that they had decided to give Rob Thomson, who became the interim manager after the ouster of Joe Girardi, a two-year contract.

The Phillies insist they are playing one game at a time, even one pitch at a time, even if they had a hunch they might have some magic in store.

“To say that we didn’t wake up this morning and have a feeling that this was going to happen, I’d be lying,” Nick Castellanos, the Philadelphia right fielder, said in the clubhouse after the game. “That doesn’t mean that you take anything for granted or just expect baseball to go your way.”

But plenty of people in Philadelphia did, and a swagger is, at last, beginning to saturate the city again.

After dark Friday, when the Phillies had just finished their first postseason game at Citizens Bank Park in 4,025 days, a chant ripped east and west along Pattison Avenue.

“One more win!” the hometown fans roared, their Phillies abruptly, improbably near the NLCS. “One more win!”

One man took a longer view. Maybe, after all of this, the World Series trophy could come back to South Philly. He cheerfully piped up through the din, a nocturnal swirl of high-fives and hugs and backslaps and — because this is forever Philadelphia — heckles.

“Nine more wins!” he cried. “Think big!”

By Saturday evening, all the Phillies needed were eight more.

And the reigning champion was out of the way.

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