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October 10, 2023

Four factors that will decide the Phillies-Braves NLDS matchup

The Phillies have a Game 3 pitching edge and a massive home-field advantage in the NLDS against the Braves. Here are four factor that will decide the tied up series.

The feeling of heartbreak has emerged for the red-hot Philadelphia Phillies, who went from being six outs away from a commanding 2-0 series lead over the MLB-best Atlanta Braves to heading home tied, 1-1, with a sour taste in their mouths.

After Tuesday’s off day, the teams will square off in South Philadelphia on Wednesday and Thursday, as each team hopes to take control of the series in Game 3 and put the opposition away the next day. Another split, of course, would mean the teams must return to Atlanta for a deciding fifth game.

As the Phillies prepare for the two biggest games of their 2023 campaign, reasons for confidence and causes for concern both remain.

Lineup depth

Surely the Phillies are capable of once again eliminating their in-division nemesis, but doing so would be an upset. This Braves team is historically good, after all. As good of a regular season as the Phillies had as they won 90 games, the Braves outpaced them to the tune of a 14-game division lead.

The Braves are a 104-win juggernaut for a reason. They have multiple MVP-caliber players at the top of their order, a lineup that produced at levels matched by very few teams in recent baseball memory. They are as deep as it gets, receiving easily above-average production from just about every spot in their lineup. On top of it, they play much better defense than the Phillies.

The Phillies can absolutely win this series. But make no mistake about it: they are the underdogs.

Game 3 starting pitching mismatch

The Phillies will hand the ball to Aaron Nola on Wednesday evening coming off a strong, seven-inning shutout performance in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Miami Marlins. Meanwhile, the Braves have yet to announce who will be on the bump when the Phillies come to bat.

Frankly, no optimal option exists for Atlanta: All-Star starter Bryce Elder is in the midst of a massive slump. AJ Smith-Shawver has just six major league appearances under his belt. Meanwhile, the construction of their roster dictates that it is overwhelmingly likely one of those two will be given the responsibility of silencing the Phillies’ high-powered offense.

Nola has his critics — in some cases, rightfully so — but he is clearly a considerably better option than whomever Braves manager Brian Snitker tabs as his starting pitcher.

Atlanta’s bullpen has a few strong pieces, but it is not as good as the Phillies’ bullpen, nor is it as deep. Phillies manager Rob Thomson flexed the team’s pitching depth in Game 1, as his legion of arms shut out the Braves’ historically good offense. The Braves do not necessarily have the luxury of being able to put together a bullpen game, and that means they will need quality innings from whoever gets the ball.

The Acuña Jr. factor

Baseball fits the definition of a “team game” precisely. But when the chips are down, each side will look to its leaders. On the field, Ronald Acuña Jr. is just that for the Braves.

Bryce Harper is as good as it gets at the plate and is capable of providing clutch swings at any time. Matt Olson’s career year was astounding to watch, as he led Major League Baseball in home runs. Austin Riley was the hero in Game 2. But the best overall baseball player in this series is Acuña Jr., plain and simple. He combines elite power with even better on-base skills. Once he gets on, he is more lethal as a base-stealer than any player in baseball right now.

Acuña Jr. cannot do it all by himself, and nobody is a perfect player. But the 25 year-old presumptive National League Most Valuable player is still searching for a signature moment. The remaining games of this series give him a platform like no other.

Home-field advantage

The Phillies will host the next two games of this series in the same ballpark in which they wiped the floor with Atlanta for two decisive victories this time last year in the exact same situation.

We are in 2023 now, and the team’s magical 2022 run is in the past. But it remains true that at every turn over the last two years, the Philadelphia crowds have been able to lift their team to greater heights. Being in the ballpark for a postseason game at Citizens Bank Park is a stunning experience. The crowd is truly deafening, and the players feed off it.

A raucous environment at the ballpark is on tap for Wednesday and Thursday nights, perhaps even rowdier than those of the electric Wild Card Series games that drew national acclaim.

ESPN’s David Cone put it perfectly during last week: “There is home-field advantage, and then there is Philadelphia.”

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