ATLANTA -- The rain delay of two hours and 55 minutes didn’t seem to faze Phillies ace Zack Wheeler.
Was the sixth-inning injury delay a different story?
“Not at all,” Wheeler insisted.
The Braves believed him.
“No, he’s a Cy Young-caliber pitcher,” said Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who knows a thing or two about pitchers' rhythm.
“Maybe,” mused Braves third baseman Austin Riley, “it sparked something in the crowd and in our dugout. That fight in us. Anything can happen at any time.”
Whatever its impact on the ensuing game-changing rally, one wayward fastball to Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. proved the pivotal point in their 3-0 win over Wheeler and the Phillies in Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday night at Truist Park, as Atlanta transformed a scoreless pitchers’ duel into a best-of-five-series knotted at 1-1 heading to Philadelphia.
Acuña got it started the painful way.
“He's just kind of that electric guy that does have that penchant for igniting things, especially this time of year, when he gets on,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And it's pretty good to have those guys coming in behind him.”
How was Acuña feeling at the end of the night? Game 3, after all, is less than two days away.
“We won,” he said. “Everything feels good.”
Before that fastball, Wheeler was in total control. He cruised into this series with a 14 1/3-inning scoreless streak, including 6 1/3 innings of two-hit ball against the Cardinals on Friday afternoon in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series. Wheeler kept the streak alive against the Braves for five scoreless innings on just 50 pitches. Atlanta’s only baserunner before the sixth was Acuña, who smacked an opposite-field single to lead off the fourth inning and never budged from first base.
Wheeler had two outs in the sixth and was humming along at 59 pitches when Acuña dug into the batter’s box. Wheeler tried to bury a sinker inside, as right-handed pitchers do with two-seam fastballs against right-handed hitters. This one missed the padded plastic guard on Acuña’s exposed left arm and hit the underside of his right forearm instead, just shy of the elbow. Acuña doubled over in pain as medical officials and Snitker came to assess the situation. Fans who had waited out the lengthy rain delay voiced their displeasure.
Ultimately, Acuña stayed in the game. Before Wheeler threw his next pitch, he threw over to first base, drawing further ire.
From the hit-by-pitch to that throw over, four minutes and 11 seconds had elapsed.
“I don't think anything really knocks you out of your rhythm, unless it's, like, a 10-minute delay, maybe,” Wheeler said. “I was throwing my pitches that I needed to throw, warmups or whatever you want to call them. I just didn't execute when the time came.”
Dansby Swanson, coming off four strikeouts in Game 1 and hitless in his first two at-bats of Game 2 -- including another strikeout -- extended the inning with a six-pitch walk. Then Matt Olson, the dangerous slugger whose three-run home run had given Atlanta something to feel good about in the ninth inning of the Phillies’ Game 1 win, smashed a 101.3 mph ground ball to the right of first baseman Rhys Hoskins. It ticked off Hoskins’ glove and Acuña raced around from second for the night’s first run.
From the Phillies’ point of view, it was the first in a series of balls to just the wrong spot. Hoskins had minus-8 Outs Above Average on plays to his right this season, which ranked 36th out of 37 qualified first basemen. Compare that to 0 OAA to his left and going back and plus-2 OAA coming in.
The official scorer awarded Olson a base hit.
“I don't know whether he didn't get a good read off the bat, but it's probably a play you should try to keep it in front of you if you can,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “I think if you asked Rhys, he would probably tell you he should make that play.”
Said Hoskins: “That’s a play I’ve made before, I’ll make again. I didn’t make it tonight.”
If Olson got the job done with hard contact, Riley got the job done simply by putting the bat on the baseball. His bouncer to the left side of the infield left the bat at 55.1 mph, according to Statcast -- the most meager ball in play for either team all night. It was good for another run and a 2-0 lead. Then Travis d’Arnaud capped a six-pitch at-bat with an RBI single, making it 3-0 Atlanta.
After getting the first two outs of the sixth on eight pitches, Wheeler needed 21 more to get the third out.
“Baseball is baseball. It’s a game of inches,” Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos said. “One more inch the other way [on Olson’s hot shot], it gets in the glove and we’re out of it. Then after that, it wasn’t like they were hitting the ball really hard. They just found holes.”
“When guys are going like that,” Olson said of Wheeler, “you’ve just got to find a way to make something happen. I was able to squeak one through, and Riley had that little swinging bunt. And then [d’Arnaud] got one through the middle and ended up being enough. Our pitchers did a hell of a job tonight.”
Snitker identified a bonus to the Braves’ long rally: It gave Acuña time to test his elbow and stay in the game. After scoring, he carefully high-fived teammates with his left hand and then darted into the clubhouse to have his right elbow evaluated. Acuña had time to make some throws in the indoor batting cage and decided he could continue.
“To be honest, I was hurting pretty bad," Acuña said, "but there was no way I was going to get out of that game."
He added in English, “Everything’s good.”