PHILADELPHIA – Starting with Bryce Elder was no problem. Holding on to him for too long has proven to be detrimental to the Braves, who are now on the verge of seeing their historic season end prematurely.
The Braves waited until late Wednesday morning to announce that Elder would start Game 3 of the National League Division Series. But discussions of that decision faded into the background as manager Brian Snitker turned to his bullpen too late in a 10-2 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park.
“I think going into that third period [Elder] Five may go [innings]Snitker said. “He looked like his old self. His stuff was really good. It just kind of went fast.”
Would things have been different if Snitker had asked Brad Hand to face Bryce Harper before the Phillies outfielder hit his first two home runs? The force of that argument faded when Harper’s comrades ended up handing over the second hand. Could things have been different if Charlie Morton’s injury to his right index finger hadn’t forced the Braves to scramble for a proper starter for Game 3?
All of this leads to a great sporting debate. But the only thing that matters to the Braves is the fact that they lost 2-1 in this best-of-five series. They will send Spencer Strider to the mound in a win-or-go-home Game 4 on Thursday night in Philadelphia.
“We knew coming here it was going to be a tough battle, and things didn’t go our way tonight,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “The nice thing is that we will get another chance tomorrow.”
The Braves find themselves in the same position they were in last year, after suffering a very similar Game 3 loss to the Phillies. Strider dominated the first two innings of that game on Oct. 14, 2022, but then fatigued during a six-inning third inning. He has not played in any games in the past 26 days due to an oblique strain.
On Wednesday, Elder impressed as he recorded four hits while proving his mastery over the first two innings. But the young right-hander also faded quickly during a six-inning third inning. The first sign of trouble came when Nick Castellanos powered an inside fastball and drilled it over the left field fence.
“It’s a really good team out there, one of the best teams in baseball,” Harper said. “Sheik had a great year. We knew we needed to get there and get things started early.”
Snitker said when asked before the game how long the leash might be for Elder. “Postseason, you go out there, and we’ll see where it goes.”
After Castellanos’ homer, a few relievers began to stretch into the bullpen. They continued to stretch when Brandon Marsh followed with a single. Two quick results offered hope that Elder could escape trouble. But Harper loomed large.
Was there any talk about starting to throw in relief before Harper came to the plate?
“No, not really,” Snitker said. “He had two outs and one man in the inning while he was being tackled.”
Once Trea Turner hit a single, Harper came to the plate, without any of the Braves’ relievers throwing a warm-up pitch. Michael Tonkin only started throwing the bullpen once Harper drilled a Statcast-projected 408-foot homer into the second deck behind the right field wall.
Did Snicker think about walking on Harper on purpose?
“Yes, I did,” said Snitker. “I was just hoping we could throw the ball and he would throw the ball. Or if we accidentally walked him, that would have been fine.”
Sheik would have been good with walking too. Harper fouled out on the field in the outside corner, spat two pitches outside the zone and then took advantage of an errant slider that stayed up.
“I had no intention of throwing that in the area, I don’t even know,” Elder said. “It’s a playoff game in baseball. I missed a pitch, and I lost 2-1 in the series.”
Elder surrendered a single and issued a walk before getting out to Tonkin, who immediately allowed a double to JT Realmuto in two runs. That six-inning final third gave the Phillies and Aaron Nola a five-run lead.
Why tonkin instead of the higher leverage option in this case?
“Because he’s the guy who can lose the quickest, and that’s the type of guy we were using in the game,” Snitker said. “You can guess everything we do. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the right move.”
The Braves’ offense nursed plenty of ailments during the regular season and again in Game 2. But the group that set an AL/NL record with a .501 slugging percentage and matched an MLB record with 307 homers totaled three extra base hits, including Two homers, through the first three games of the series.
Seeing this offensive slump was not unexpected. But knowing the Braves might have trouble stringing together a 27-game winning streak in Game 3 has been a concern since Morton’s injury on Sept. 22. Five days ago, Dylan Lee went on the 60-day injured list, leaving Atlanta with just two lefties. Painkillers.
All of this had the Braves scrambling until they finally decided to start Elder before traveling to Philadelphia on Tuesday. The 24-year-old pitcher earned an All-Star selection this year, but showed signs of fatigue over the final few starts of his first full big-league season.
With their season on the line Thursday, the Braves will hand the ball to Spencer Strider, who heard Phillies fans loudly chant, “We want Strider,” during Wednesday’s defeat.
If the Braves win on Thursday, they could give the ball to Max Fried in Game 5, which takes place Saturday night in Atlanta. Elite guys like Strider and Fried tend to minimize any second guessing.
“I feel pretty good with the next two games we got,” Snitker said.
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