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The Phillies Went For The Throat And Missed

Bryce Harper walks back to the dugout as the Atlanta Braves celebrate their win
Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The acute heartbreak came at the very end, but the Phillies' Game 2 loss to the Atlanta Braves had its roots in the top of the first. The road team roughed up the normally stellar starter Max Fried, hustling their way into a run before loading the bases with two outs. But stringing hits together is difficult business, especially in the playoffs, and Bryson Stott's groundout kept the lead from growing beyond 1-0. In the second, in what would become a recurring motif, they left a runner in scoring position. In the fourth, two men were stranded. In the sixth, they had first and second with one out and couldn't bring anyone around. The Phillies, come stretch time, still had a firm 4-1 lead to protect. But they had wasted their opportunity to bury the Braves early. With all those baserunners, the Phillies' hitters had repeated clean shots at the kill. Instead, they anxiously paced around the hospital while the Atlanta patients made a miraculous recovery.

For a while, it looked like Zack Wheeler wouldn't need any more than the runs his team delivered. He earned the "no-hitter in progress" banner on the scoreboard with five-plus innings of blemish-free ball fueled by a hot fastball and some biting breaking stuff that racked up 10 Ks. Through the first half of the game, Braves fans had more ammo with which to vent their frustration about all the rust that supposedly built up over their bye week. Manager Brian Snitker even mentioned in a mid-game interview that the struggling Fried, who lasted just four innings, hadn't pitched legit since Sept. 21. Wheeler, meanwhile, was in a groove after a strong start against the Marlins in the last series.

But the dreaded third time through the order ruined Wheeler's incredible night just the same. A walk, a single, and a bad error by Trea Turner allowed Ozzie Albies to plate Ronald Acuña in the sixth, and in the seventh, the league's most powerful team by hundreds of feet got to finally play their kind of game. Travis d'Arnaud's whopper of a two-run shot sent Wheeler off the mound, and in the eighth, Austin Riley caught hold of one with Acuña on and pulled the Braves in front, 5-4. The final left-on-base tally for the Braves? Just two, or nine fewer than their rivals. Sometimes, the runs you don't score hurt as much as the ones you allow.

The Phillies still tried to throw one last counterpunch. Bryce Harper led off the top of the ninth with a walk, and after a J. T. Realmuto fly-out, Nick Castellanos blasted what could have been, might have been a home run on some other night, in some other place. Instead, Michael Harris turboed to the fence, leaped for the grab, and smelled blood in the infield. Harper, making a dash for the tie with reckless abandon, got doubled off for the game-ending out.

To have a 2-0 lead in your sights and then surrender it by allowing five straight runs is demoralizing. It's like crashing your car a half-mile from the airport, or getting struck by lightning as you set up your towel on the beach. But if there's a silver lining to the disappointment, it's that the sexy, easygoing Phillies have never tried to incorporate concepts like "narrative" or "momentum" in their beautiful brains.

"We thrive after we get punched in the face, man. You know?" said Castellanos at his locker after the loss.

He's correct, in the sense that no other team had more ninth-inning comebacks than the Phillies this year. They still have the chance to clinch a series at home against a higher seed, which is all they could have hoped for before it started, and the sheer noise that their crowd will bring for Game 3 on Wednesday can wipe the slate clean. With how loud that place gets, you can't even recall your own birthday, let alone some what-ifs from a couple days ago. But if they can't make that Red October magic work again, this is the one they'll remember.

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