Who will the Braves call on to start Game 3?

October 11th, 2023

ATLANTA -- The Braves won Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Monday night at Truist Park by igniting a late rally that tied the largest comeback win in franchise postseason history.

But as they left to travel to Philadelphia on Tuesday, they still weren’t ready to announce who would start Game 3 the following night.

“Length-wise, we got some options,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on Tuesday before the team boarded its flight. “It’s a lot of things [to consider]. If we want to do an opener, who are we going to follow up with if we decide to do that, [or] if we want to just go the traditional route. It’s a lot of different scenarios we’re looking at”

Whoever it is will have to overcome a potent Phillies lineup, a hostile environment and history. When a Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format has been tied after two games, the club heading home for Games 3 and 4 has won the series 28 of 42 times (67 percent).

Spencer Strider, who tossed seven innings in Game 1 on Saturday night, won’t be available until Game 4 on Thursday, while Kyle Wright (right shoulder) is likely out through the 2024 season and Charlie Morton (right index finger) isn’t eligible to return until the NL Championship Series.

As a result, Atlanta will have to deploy someone unfamiliar with the raucous postseason atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park.

“I don't think anybody's really seen that crowd like that,” Kirby Yates said. “... [Citizens Bank Park] was a little different. But truthfully, in my eyes, that's kind of the way you want every road crowd. It makes [the] playoffs feel different, and that's something that makes it fun, something that makes it enjoyable.”

Here are the Braves’ options for their Game 3 starter.

Elder is the most experienced starting option available. With Max Fried and Wright battling injuries early in the season, the second-year pitcher served as one of many life preservers in Atlanta’s rotation. He was named to his first All-Star Game, and his 3.81 ERA ranked second among qualified starters on the team (11th in the NL).

But the right-hander struggled in the second half of the season, posting a 5.11 ERA with 48 strikeouts to 29 walks over 13 starts. When he faced the Phillies in Atlanta on Sept. 20, Elder allowed four runs on three hits (including two home runs) and five walks with zero strikeouts across 3 2/3 innings.

“Full confidence in Bryce,” catcher Sean Murphy said. “I know what kind of competitor he is, person he is. I know he wants the ball, too. If Bryce gets his name called, glad to go out there and call the game for him, and I know he’s champing at the bit to get out there.”

Elder’s lone appearance in Philadelphia came back on June 22, when he held the Phillies scoreless over seven innings while allowing three hits, two walks and striking out six.

The Braves called up Smith-Shawver on Sept. 28 for a spot start against the Cubs, and the 20-year-old impressed with his high-velocity fastball over 3 2/3 innings. It was a strong outing for the club’s top prospect (MLB Pipeline’s No. 53 prospect), who posted a 4.57 ERA in five earlier appearances (four starts) this year. He also silenced most of Atlanta’s regulars in the team's intrasquad practices on Oct. 3.

But Smith-Shawver, who has never pitched at Citizens Bank Park, is only a rookie who's yet to log a postseason appearance in the bigs. Strider made his postseason debut in Game 3 of the NLDS at Citizens Bank Park last year and was chased in the third inning. Will Atlanta do that again with a pitcher who has less experience?

“If I was in that situation, I don't know how I'd be feeling, but I do know AJ really well,” A.J. Minter said. “... So I'm fully confident. I'm sure he'll be in there sooner or later in the game.”

Bullpen game
The Braves could also just deploy their bullpen, much like they did in the 2021 World Series when they used openers to start Games 4 and 5. If they go this route again, opener options could include Michael Tonkin, Brad Hand or Daysbel Hernández.

Tonkin pitched extended innings throughout 2023 and earned seven wins with a 4.28 ERA across 80 frames. Snitker said the right-hander might be the MVP of the pitching staff in September.

“Just the different roles that he's assumed and situations that he's came through in -- so big -- and what he's done has just been phenomenal,” Snitker said.

As for Hernández, the rookie made his first four career appearances at the end of July before landing on the injured list with right forearm inflammation. 

The right-hander then pitched his way onto the postseason roster after two strong outings in the team’s intrasquad games during Atlanta’s bye week. Hernández’s fastball can shred the zone, averaging 96 mph with batters hitting .111 against it in the regular season.

The appeal in turning to Hand to open the game would be that the lefty could help neutralize Phillies left-handed sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper in the first inning. Schwarber is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts in his career against Hand, while Harper has been held to two extra-base hits in 25 career at-bats.

But doing so would also leave the Braves with only one other lefty reliever (Minter) in their ‘pen.