Saturday, February 24 2024

PHILADELPHIA — Ronald Acuña Jr. is the likely National League MVP this year. What’s more, the shape of his production — an unprecedented power-speed combination — makes him the perfect avatar of the more dynamic, more action-packed baseball that MLB endeavored to implement this season with a slate of new rules that played perfectly into Acuña’s aggressiveness on the basepaths. As the brightest star on the best team, it almost seemed like the 2023 season was a story about Acuña.

Sorry, I should specify: the 2023 regular season.

If the 2023 postseason were about Acuña — and not some other guy — his at-bat in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the NLDS on Thursday would’ve been a climactic moment. In what has quickly become a compelling and heated October rivalry, the Braves faced off against the Phillies, the team that sent them packing last postseason. With this series to that point mirroring the one from last year, the Braves needed a win to escape the hostile confines of Citizens Bank Park and bring things back home.

Given extra ammunition, the Philly fans found a new decibel, or maybe just a more vicious tenor. The boos were rabid, the jeers targeted and specific. A smattering of solo shots had given the Phillies a 3-1 lead and the game a sense of inevitability.

But then, with two outs, a couple of Phillies relievers walked the bases loaded to bring up Acuña.

“You don’t want anybody else out there other than him,” said Austin Riley, the only member of the Atlanta lineup to look alive in this series. “I didn’t want anybody out there other than Ronnie.”

If this postseason were about him, if the 104-win Braves were on their way to a second championship in three years — and the first with Acuña in the lineup, rather than watching from the injured list — with a roster that looked to be just beginning its run of dominance, you know what would’ve happened. Big stage, big moment, right guy at the plate.

On a 2-2 count, Acuña launched a fastball toward center field, and, well, 45,831 fans who came to see a clinch can’t fall silent, but there was a definite hush.

“I didn’t think it was gonna go out,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said.

“You’re just hoping that it finds grass,” Riley said.

“When I saw the outfielder kind of holding up a little bit, I thought maybe this ball is going to be off the wall,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I was hoping.”

“I wasn’t sure whether it was going to get up on the wall,” Thomson continued, “but I knew that if it didn’t get up on the wall, he was gonna catch it. Because that’s what he’s there for.”

He caught it.

Johan Rojas — a glove-first rookie who has one hit in 22 plate appearances this postseason, yet starts every game in case of moments just like this — covered 102 feet in the five seconds of hang time to snatch the ball out of the air on a running leap. Inning over.

Six outs later, the Phillies advanced. The Braves, who have won 205 games in the two seasons since their championship, failed to make it out of the first round again.

That one play wasn’t why the Braves lost. I mean, it kind of was, in that with another foot or two, maybe just a few more inches, they could’ve tied the game or taken the lead. But that was just one out.

Over the three games Atlanta lost in this series, they had the same 81 outs to play with that the Phillies did. The Phillies managed 16 runs, the Braves just three. One of the best lineups baseball has ever seen simply stopped scoring.

Before this series, by virtue of their best-record bye, the Braves got to (sorry, had to) rest for a few days between the end of the regular season and their first postseason matchup against the Phillies. They also got to line up their pitching to prioritize their ace, Spencer Strider — a particular boon to a club weathering injuries and uncertainty in the rotation. Strider started the first and last games of the series. In 12⅔ innings across those two games, he gave up four earned runs. In his short career, he has now made three postseason starts, all against the Phillies, all losses.

Strider took ample accountability after the game.

“You can’t hang sliders to good hitters,” he said. When he did, Nick Castellanos and Trea Turner put them in the seats. Castellanos also did the same to a fastball, giving the Phillies 11 home runs in the series. The Braves, newly minted co-owners of the MLB record for team home runs in a single season, managed just three.

“You look at the playoff format and everything, I mean, you don’t need to be a great team all year. You need to get to the playoffs, and then it’s a different game,” Strider said. “We did a lot of good things in the regular season, but ultimately, we’ve got to find a way to make the next step in the postseason.”

As painful as it is right now, the Braves are in a privileged position to be able to say that: confident that the only thing standing between them and another crack at October is 11 months. Very few teams have the luxury of looking that far ahead on the day their season ends. But after six straight years of winning the division, why shouldn’t they assume as much? And if that seems like cold comfort, it’s only from the perspective of leaving the ballpark for the last time this year smelling champagne but not tasting it. Even to be so close to a celebration is something worth savoring.

Nicky Lopez was the last Brave to leave the dugout in 2023. Acquired at the deadline from the Kansas City Royals, he didn’t go into the 2023 season with the same sense of expectation.

“Getting traded here, it made baseball fun again,” a teary-eyed Lopez said later. “I got to experience October. I got to experience a taste of what meaningful baseball is.”

In four games, the speed specialist got no at-bats. He was a pinch-runner in Game 4, and he stayed in for two frames in the field. Even so, after toiling through five years of losing seasons in Kansas City, he wanted to savor every minute of his first postseason experience. And so he stayed in the dugout while the Phillies danced to their irritatingly catchy theme song in jubilation.

“Just kind of watching, observing, because it’s my first time here,” he said. “You can’t take it for granted.”

He said the baseball adage is true: Once you get a taste of the postseason, it makes you even hungrier for more.

“They’re right. I can’t wait to do it again,” Lopez said. “It was very special. I wish everyone could feel it.”

Source: Yahoo Sports

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