Braves in must-win mode after Game 3 loss

Strider allows five runs, as offense scuffles: 'Our backs are against the wall'

October 15th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- Fortunately, there will not be any more tough rotation decisions. The Braves will either win with the assistance of their top two veteran starters, or they will head home wondering what might have been had Spencer Strider not run out of gas.

Strider looked like both a superhero and a mere mortal as the Braves suffered a 9-1 loss to the Phillies in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Friday at Citizens Bank Park. There will be plenty of time to debate whether he should have been lifted earlier than he was. But for now, Atlanta must focus on its first elimination game since Game 7 of the 2020 NL Championship Series against the Dodgers at Globe Life Field.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I think every baseball fan knows that. And we're going to be ready to go and give it everything we’ve got.”

With the Game 3 loss, the Braves now trail, 2-1, in the best-of-five series. They didn’t face an elimination game during any of the three rounds they played en route to winning last year’s World Series.

History isn’t on the Braves’ side. In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams up 2-1 and playing Game 4 in their home ballpark have advanced 21 of 26 times (81%). In 15 of those instances, the series has ended in Game 4.

Still, with everything on the line, the Braves may have the right guys lined up to pitch. Postseason savvy pitcher Charlie Morton will oppose Noah Syndergaard in Game 4 on Saturday afternoon, while ace Max Fried would start Game 5 (if necessary) on Sunday in Atlanta.

“We've got to win one in a row right now,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We've got the perfect guy out there to do it. Charlie's been in these situations many times. And we need to start scoring some runs, also.” 

Morton posted a 5.47 ERA in five starts against the Phillies this season and surrendered six runs in just 4 2/3 innings here on Sept. 25. But the 38-year-old veteran has been a different beast in the postseason. He has a 2.51 ERA over his past 10 playoff starts and is 5-0 with a 0.73 ERA (two earned runs in 24 2/3 innings) in five career elimination games (four starts).

After evening this series on Wednesday, the Braves debated whether to use Strider or Morton on Saturday. The decision wasn’t nearly as questionable as the one that led this same team to give Mike Soroka just one start in the 2019 NLDS against the Cardinals. But the execution of the decision was certainly flawed.  

Strider totaled just 29 pitches as he tallied three strikeouts and breezed through the first two innings in perfect fashion. But pitching for the first time since his left oblique began bothering him during a Sept. 18 start, the rookie hurler ran out of gas in the third. He issued a four-pitch leadoff walk to Brandon Marsh, used 17 pitches to get through the next two batters and yielded a three-run homer to Rhys Hoskins on a 93.8 mph fastball -- Strider’s slowest fastball of the year.

Strider’s fastball averaged 98.6 mph during the first two innings and then averaged 96.4 mph as he threw it 17 times in the third. The drop in velocity was understandable given that he had thrown off a mound just twice over the past 26 days, but he didn’t see it that way.

“It’s not May, it’s October,” Strider said. “I’ve been pitching for 130 innings all season. My arm is used to going 100 pitches every five days. That’s the norm. It’s not like I was down for two months. I took six days off throwing and then started throwing again.”

But the time of year is exactly why there should have been a shorter leash, or at least why the Braves should've had somebody throwing in the bullpen once Marsh drew the walk to open the bottom of the third. 

“As good as he was throwing, we thought we could skate him through,” said Snitker, who seemed to have an optimistic outlook when he said he entered the game hoping to get four innings out of Strider.

A six-run third doomed Strider and drained the Braves, as they tallied just one unearned run over six-plus innings against Aaron Nola. Really, the most encouraging development was the fact Jake Odorizzi ate three-plus innings and ensured Atlanta will enter Saturday with all of its top relievers well-rested.

High-leverage relievers Collin McHugh, Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter and closer Kenley Jansen will all be available for Game 4 on at least two days of rest. This could prove significant, since they might be needed each of the next two days.

While the Braves are in the must-win situation they avoided last year, they aren’t in completely unfamiliar territory. This is the same team that won a fifth consecutive division title after being seven games back as late as Aug. 10 this season.

“Yeah, we're facing elimination, but [let’s] see what we're made of,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “We’ll see how we respond. I wouldn't want to have our backs up against the wall with anybody other than [with] this team right here. We'll see how it goes.”