The star power in this colossal NLDS rematch between the Phillies and Braves will not be matched by any other series this October. This is a World Series-caliber clash of two teams with championship-or-bust expectations, and with good reason.
Getting to watch two teams this dynamic face off so early in October is like eating ice cream before dinner. It’s like being handed cotton candy as you walk into the amusement park. It’s like opening a box of baseball cards and finding your favorite rookie in the first pack.
The TBS broadcasts for this series will trumpet the superstars of the series, because the list is long. The Atlanta lineup starts with likely NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. and features mashers up and down the starting nine. Ozzie Albies hit 33 homers this season and was fifth on his own team. FIFTH! That’s just insane.
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Phillies ready to finish the job
The Phillies don’t have quite the same raw numbers, but let’s put it this way: In more than a handful of games down the stretch, Nick Castellanos — who finished with 29 homers and 106 RBIs — batted seventh or eighth.
Good luck with that.
“You don’t get many breaks in this lineup,” manager Rob Thomson said when asked about his team’s lineup before a game in St. Louis last month.
Ain’t that the truth.
Last October was a magical run for the Phillies. They snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed with only 87 wins, then knocked off the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, the Braves in the NLDS and the Padres in the NLCS. They grabbed a 2-1 lead in the World Series against the Astros, but couldn’t hold that advantage, and Houston won in six games.
This year, they’re determined to finish the job. Most of the principles from that team are back. We saw Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola dominate in the Wild Card round. The lineup returns Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm, Brandon Marsh and Castellanos. And, of course, we all know about the addition of Trea Turner.
But let’s take a look at four players who weren’t part of that 2022 playoff run who just might help this year’s team seal the deal — and that would include once again crushing Atlanta’s dream, which would be a nice bonus for Phillies fans.
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Center fielder Johan Rojas
It’s not supposed to be this easy, making the jump from Double-A to the majors in the middle of a playoff race. Rojas has made it look easy, at the plate and in the field.
“Johan, he’s such an electric player, and he can impact the game in so many ways,” Thomson said after Rojas went 1-for-3 in his playoff debut. “His poise level, since he’s been up here, has just been unbelievable for a young kid like he is, that’s never been above Double-A.”
Rojas joined the team after the All-Star break and spent the second half playing like he’s destined to make a couple trips to the midseason showcase himself. There are plenty of examples to point to, but let’s look at one series in St. Louis in September. In the three games, he went 5-for-9 with a pair of stolen bases and a pair of doubles, with a key sacrifice bunt, too.
And the glove?
“The defense, obviously, it’s premium, the way he goes out there,” Schwarber said after the Phillies’ 6-1 win on September 16. “That ball in the gap? It’s unfortunate for the other guy but it’s great for us. You hit a ball in the gap at 102, the right-center field gap, and it’s an out? He made the play pretty easy, but that’s a tough play. So his defense has been great, but also his at-bats, I feel, have been good, too. He’s had a lot of hard contact, moving guys over when he needs to and he’s driving guys in, too. And once he gets on the bases, it can turn into a double or triple real quick.”
And in October, with Rojas locking down center field, Schwarber can stay at DH, with Brandon Marsh — another outstanding defensive outfielder — tracking down fly balls. With two plus defenders, along with Castellanos, who has far outplayed his reputation this season, the Phillies’ defense is miles better than it was last October.
Relief pitcher Matt Strahm
The thing about October is this: You never know what might happen. That’s true from series to series, from game to game and from inning to inning. So what you try to do when building a playoff-caliber roster is this: Plan for everything.
And with a guy like Matt Strahm, the Phillies have a unique safety net.
“He’s been really important,” Thomson said. “At the start of the year, he went in the rotation just out of need, and took out some heavy innings. Now he’s transitioned back to the bullpen where we can use him two-inning stints, or come into a dirty inning and get out of it, then send him back out again. He’s a huge piece to our bullpen.”
A lanky lefty, Strahm believes in his heart he can start in the bigs. But he wants to win, too, and understands what these Phillies need from him. He relishes the chance to compete every day when he’s in the bullpen. The Phillies have used him all over the place this season, which is fine with him. It’ll be the same in October, whether the ask is two innings because a starter gets chased early, or if it’s facing a slugging lefty late with the game on the line.
“I’ve always said, I just want to pitch. I don’t want to be labeled as ‘just a bullpen guy’ or ‘just a starter’ I want to be known as a pitcher who can pitch anything, anytime,” Strahm said. “I always tell Topper (Thomson), once you give me the ball, I want to shake J.T.’s hand. I don’t want to shake yours.”
A few numbers of note from 2023 …
— Opposing batters are hitting .179 with a .444 OPS with runners in scoring position
— He’s faced 13 batters in extra innings and allowed zero hits
— Lefties hit .209 vs. Strahm, righties batted .214
“He’s very deceptive. The ball gets on you,” Thomson said. “The arm comes out real late, and all of a sudden the ball’s on top of you, so I think that’s the main reason he can get righties out.”
Relievers Orion Kerkering and Jeff Hoffman
We cannot possibly talk about the Phillies’ bullpen pieces without bringing up these two right-handers, who came from wildly different backgrounds.
Kerkering is a 22-year-old former fifth-round pick who has exactly three innings of big-league experience. Well, four now that he threw a scoreless frame against the Marlins in Game 2 of that series. He’s faced 17 big-league hitters and struck out seven of them.
“It looked like he was in his backyard playing Wiffle ball because he was just normal,” Thomson said after Wednesday’s game. “We tried to get him a spot like that, just to see what — how he would respond to it, and he responded great. I think we just keep moving forward with him. So far, so good. The poise, the calmness is there.”
Kerkering started the season in Class A ball and just kept dominating, so the Phillies kept giving him new challenges. He made a total of 49 appearances combined at Class-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, with a 1.51 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.
Hoffman, on the other hand, was drafted when Kerkering was 13 years old and made his big-league debut and three years later, in 2016. Hoffman’s always had a big arm — it’s why he was the No. 9 overall pick in 2013 — but never really found his footing in the bigs. Pitching in Colorado surely didn’t help, but the 30-year-old Hoffman had a career ERA of 5.68 ERA prior to this season. With the Phillies, he had a career-best 2.41.
And Thomson wasted no time rewarding that effort with a huge playoff opportunity. In Game 1 vs. the Marlins, Hoffman was called on in the eighth inning of a 3-1 game, with one on and two outs. At the plate: Jorge Soler, who hit 36 homers for Miami this year. Hoffman made his pitch, and Soler hit a weak grounder to Turner at shortstop for an inning-ending force out at second base.
So, yeah. Add Strahm and Kerkering and Hoffman to a group that includes Jose Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, Seranthony Dominguez and Christopher Sanchez, and that’s a good feeling for Phillies fans.
“Our bullpen is full of guys who just want to compete,” Strahm said. “I think you could honestly just sit there and draw straws to see who goes out and you’d be fine.”