PHILADELPHIA -- Starting Bryce Elder wasn’t a problem. Sticking with him too long proved detrimental to the Braves, who are now on the brink of seeing their historic season end prematurely.
The Braves waited until late Wednesday morning to announce Elder would start Game 3 of the National League Division Series. But debates about this 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.
“Going into that third inning, I thought [Elder] might go five [innings],” Snitker said. “He looked like his old self. His stuff was really good. It just kind of went quick.”
Would things have been different had Snitker called upon Brad Hand to face Bryce Harper before the Phillies slugger hit the first of his two home runs? The strength of that argument faded when Hand ended up surrendering the second of Harper’s homers. Might things have been different had Charlie Morton’s right index finger injury not forced the Braves to scramble for a suitable Game 3 starter?
All of this makes for great sports debate. But the only thing that matters to the Braves is the fact they are down 2-1 in this best-of-five series. They will send Spencer Strider to the mound in what is a win-or-go-home Game 4 on Thursday night in Philadelphia.
“We knew coming in here it was going to be a tough battle, and things just didn't go our way tonight,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “The beauty of it is we'll 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 he became fatigued during a six-run third inning. He hadn’t pitched in a game over the previous 26 days because of an oblique strain.
On Wednesday, Elder impressed as he recorded four strikeouts while proving perfect through the first two innings. But the young right-hander also faded quickly during a six-run third. The first sign of trouble came when Nick Castellanos turned on an inside fastball and drilled it over the left-field fence.
”It's a really good team over there, one of the best in baseball,” Harper said. “Elder had a great year. We knew we needed to get in there and get it going early.”
Asked before the game how long the leash might be for Elder, Snitker said. “Postseason, you’ve got to get outs, and we'll just see where it's going.”
After Castellanos' homer, a few relievers started to stretch in the bullpen. They continued to stretch when Brandon Marsh followed with a single. Two quick outs provided hope that Elder might escape trouble. But Harper was looming.
Was there any conversation about having a reliever start throwing before Harper came to the plate?
“No, not really,” Snitker said. “He had two outs and one guy on in the inning as it processed.”
Once Trea Turner hit an infield single, Harper came to the plate, still without any Braves relievers having thrown a warmup pitch. Michael Tonkin only started throwing in the bullpen once Harper drilled a Statcast-projected 408-foot homer into the second deck beyond the right-field wall.
Did Snitker think about intentionally walking Harper?
“Yeah, I did,” Snitker said. “I was just hoping maybe we could make a pitch and he’d pop a ball up. Or if we had walked him unintentionally, that would have been fine.”
Elder would have been fine with a walk as well. Harper fouled off a pitch on the outside corner, spit on two pitches out of the zone and then took advantage of an errant slider that stayed up.
“I had no intention of throwing that one in the zone, and I don’t even know,” Elder said. “It’s playoff baseball. You miss a pitch, and you’re down, 2-1, in the series.”
Elder surrendered a single and issued a walk before exiting for Tonkin, who promptly allowed J.T. Realmuto’s two-run double. This latest six-run third gave the Phillies and Aaron Nola a five-run lead.
Why Tonkin instead of a higher-leverage option in this situation?
“Because he’s the guy who could get loose quicker, and that’s kind of the guy, where we were in the game, that we’ve been using,” Snitker said. “You can second-guess everything we do. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the right move.”
The Braves' offense cured a lot of ails 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 a MLB record with 307 homers has totaled three extra-base hits, including two homers, through the series’ first three games.
Seeing this offense slump wasn’t expected. But knowing the Braves might have trouble cobbling together 27 outs in Game 3 was a concern since Morton's injury on Sept. 22. Five days earlier, Dylan Lee went on the 60-day injured list, and that left Atlanta with just two left-handed relievers.
All of this set the Braves scrambling until they finally decided on starting Elder just before flying to Philadelphia on Tuesday. The 24-year-old hurler earned an All-Star selection this year, but he showed signs of fatigue over the final few starts of his first full big league season.
With their season on the line on Thursday, the Braves will hand the ball to Spencer Strider, who heard Phillies fans loudly chanting, “We want Strider,” during Wednesday’s rout.
If the Braves win Thursday, they could give the ball to Max Fried for Game 5, which would be played Saturday night in Atlanta. Top-flight guys like Strider and Fried tend to reduce any second-guessing.
“I feel pretty good with the next two starters that we got,” Snitker said.