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October 12, 2023

Instant observations: Nick Castellanos lifts Phillies to another NLCS

The Phillies will be playing deeper into October after taking care of business in the NLDS.

The Phillies — mainly Nick Castellanos — delivered yet again as they'll advance to the NLCS to face the Diamondbacks next week, downing the Braves 3-1 to take the series Thursday night.

It was an evening not without drama, as Phillies fans were on the edge of their seats, and quite literally on their feet for the better part of three hours in South Philly as they prevailed in the NLDS for the second straight year.

So as the Phillies celebrate with bud light and Alec Bohm's cigars again, (with three days to recover this time), here's a look at what we'll remember and be talking about from a clinching Game 4 in South Philly:

The good

• I can't really understand why Nick Castellanos was hitting seventh — after hitting two home runs in Game 3 — but he hit another one in the fourth inning in Game 4 to wake up a frustrated Phillies crowd and even things out at 1-1. Perhaps we'll see Castellanos helping to protect Bryce Harper in a potential NLCS batting order.

He went deep yet again, his fourth homer in two nights, in the sixth inning as he's begun to build his own obsessive following in South Philly. The dinger also knocked Braves' starter Spencer Strider out of the game, much to the delight of fans who were hoping their cheering would force him to make a few mistakes.

• Philadelphia hit nine home runs over two games at Citizens Bank Park, another of which came in the fifth, Trea Turner skying a booming drive to left field to put the Phillies ahead and in control of their NLDS destiny. There are two distinct offensive cheers that echo in the Phillies' home ballpark. One is the highly anticipated cheer of glory and delight — like Harper's big three-run homer the other night. It's a building wall of sound like a jet plane taking off. And then there's the, "holy crap what just happened?" for a solo shot out of nowhere cheer, like the fans bellowed twice Thursday night. Both probably result in long term hearing damage, but they are different flavors of the intensity of these fanatical supporters. 

• A hat tip to Ranger Suarez, who put together five very solid innings against one of the best offenses ever to play the game. Aside from a relented solo shot and two other base hits, everything else out of his hand resulted in 15 very meaningful outs as he stands firmly as a reliable No. 3 in the Phillies rotation.

• The collective sigh of relief could have blown a sailing ship across the Atlantic Ocean in the top of the seventh inning, as Craig Kimbrel faced Ronald Acuna Jr. with the bases loaded and two outs. The presumptive NL MVP blasted a ball to the deepest part of centerfield and somehow rookie Johan Rojas tracked it down to end Atlanta's biggest scoring threat of the game. 

For a split second before Rojas caught the ball, a potential grand slam or bases-clearing double spelling potential doom, you could have heard a pin drop amongst 46,000 fans. It was like Bruce Springsteen was about to finish Jungleland and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

• Turner had four hits — no Phillies player has ever done that in a playoff game. $300 million at work.

• It's almost ironic that the Phillies actually beat the Braves at their own game in this series. Atlanta tied for the most home runs ever in a season, and they also led all of baseball with a +231 run differential, an average margin of victory of more than 1.4 runs per game — a huge number over such a big sample size. In the four games against the Braves the Phillies hit 13 homers. Atlanta hit three. Philly out-scored Atlanta 20-8.

The bad

• Harper appeared to collide with Matt Olson running to first and the Phils' converted first baseman writhed in pain before being helped off the field — though he eventually appeared to shake it off and walk off himself.

There could be some fear that he somehow reaggravated his Tommy John repaired elbow, the one that kept him out for months and forced him to play DH and then learn first base to return to the field. But Harper returned to play first and looked okay after the scare. 

UPDATE: Just caught his funny bone. It's cool. 

• Rob Thomson is very much okay with his team being mega-aggressive running the bases, even when it's costly. We saw it in Game 2, when Bryce Harper was famously caught in no man's land and doubled up to end their losing effort in Atlanta. It happened again in the second inning in Game 4 when Braves' centerfielder Michael Harris made another amazing catch, with two runners on and one man out. Nick Castellanos didn't even bother backtracking — he basically went from second to home, under the assumption that a Johan Rojas line drive would be an RBI hit. It wasn't, and the two outs took away an RBI chance for Kyle Schwarber on deck.

Even earlier, in the first inning with another two men on, the Phillies attempted a double steal with Trea and Harper that was made irrelevant by a foul ball. Equate this to an NBA team having a lot of turnovers but scoring a lot of points. The Phillies are content to take the good with the bad, and it's these kind of risky decisions that makes Thomson such an interesting manager in Philadelphia. But it's also giving free outs to a desperate team. 

• One more note on Thomson — who used Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez and Craig Kimbrel all before the ninth — sent Gregory Soto to the hill to start the final inning. Yes, the match up decision makes a little sense, it was the bottom of the Braves order. But it might be a bit much to use every one of your key guys before the ninth. Soto immediately gave up a walk and a hit and was yanked for Matt Strahm. Thankfully, the versatile reliever turned starter turned reliever slammed the door shut and secured the biggest save of his life.

• Turner made a throwing error at short on a routine grounder that really should have been scooped up by Harper at first. These are the kinds of fielding mistakes the team knew it would have to deal with when it threw tons of money on big bats over the last few years, surrendering above-average defense. 

• The Phillies had six non home run base hits and three walks, and none of them generated runs Thursday. The Phillies were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and stranded eight runners. Some insurance would certainly have made thing less tense in the later innings. It didn't matter Thursday — but this is something that could wind up being the storyline in the future if the team falters in big spots again.

So long Braves...

• The crowd has been an incredibly important factor in this series and they've booed several players pretty mercilessly over the last two nights. Here's a definitive ranking of the most boo-worthy Braves players (we'll keep it to within my 36-year lifetime):

  1. John Rocker — Ugh...
  2. Orlando Arcia — He's kind of an idiot and Bryce Harper will always be intrinsically linked to him
  3. Spencer Strider — He's also an idiot, and likes pitching simulated games more than real ones
  4. Chipper Jones — Just an all-time easy to hate guy
  5. John Smoltz — A hall of fame pitcher who could get under the skin
  6. Ronald Acuna Jr. — He's really freaking good, and can get under the skin just as much. 

• The Phillies have historically not made many trips to the postseason. In 120 seasons, the Phillies have had just 16 "red Octobers." That total is nothing special — just 13% — and is 15th all-time. But they make the most of those opportunities. Of the first 15 postseason trips the Phillies made the World Series eight times, better than 50%. 

Thursday's win was the 15th time in 19 chances that the Phillies closed out an opponent in a postseason. They are 15-4 all-time in such clinching games, a 79% winning percentage which is the best of any MLB team (with a minimum of 15 opportunities). They are 9-2 in such games at home.

Their home-field advantage bodes well for them in the next round (and potentially beyond).

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