PHILADELPHIA -- The Braves jumped up and down on the infield, then sprayed champagne and beer in the visitors’ clubhouse Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park.
Atlanta clinched a sixth consecutive National League East title with a 4-1 victory over the Phillies, who have watched three of the Braves’ division celebrations over the past six years. It was not a gut-wrenching scene for Philadelphia, though.
The Phillies hadn’t been closer than five games to Atlanta since mid-May. They had not been thinking about the division for weeks, maybe months. Instead, they have been focused on the No. 1 NL Wild Card.
The Phillies have a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cubs for that top spot with 16 games to play.
“Did we want it to be on our field? No,” Phillies designated hitter Kyle Schwarber said. “But they’re going to have to do it somewhere. The focus is on us still.”
But the Phillies went 2-5 in their homestand against Miami and Atlanta. They lost those five games by a combined eight runs. They lost two of those games in the 10th after hitting a game-tying home run in the ninth.
“It’s not like it’s been non-competitive losses,” Schwarber said. “We’ve been in it every single game. That’s the positive thing. We’re all going to regroup. We’ve got the off-day tomorrow. Get a little breather, refresh and be ready for a big road series.”
The Phillies open a three-game series Friday night in St. Louis before they play a three-game series in Atlanta next week. They want to win at least half of those games and avoid a repeat of last September, when it got tense heading into the season’s final week. Philly stumbled down the stretch only to clinch the third NL Wild Card slot with three games to play.
These Phillies have more breathing room. They have a 3 1/2-game lead over the D-backs and Reds, with Cincinnati holding the tiebreaker over Arizona for the third NL Wild Card spot. Philly would like to pull away from the pack and clinch the top seed with enough time to set up its rotation for the postseason.
“We want it to be a different September,” Schwarber said. “I don’t think we want it to be a September where we’re losing, and we’re trying to find a way. We want to flip the script and make sure that we’re going to be taking care of business and playing our game. The signs are there. Everything is there.”
Phillies left-hander Cristopher Sánchez could be a weapon down the stretch and possibly into October. He allowed four runs in 7 1/3 innings, striking out a career-high 10 batters and walking one. His performance Wednesday could solidify his spot as the No. 5 starter. He is expected to make another start next week in Atlanta.
There has been talk recently about Sánchez and Michael Lorenzen piggybacking starts, but there is a possibility that Sánchez starts and Lorenzen pitches out of the bullpen.
Sánchez got eight strikeouts and 18 swings and misses on his changeup. The eight strikeouts on the changeup are tied for the most by any Phillies pitcher since at least 2008. The 18 swings and misses on the changeup are the most by any Phillies pitcher and tied for the second-most in baseball since at least 2008.
“It’s nasty,” Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. said.
“I don’t think it was any different tonight,” Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “I think they probably haven’t seen a changeup like that out of other guys. It’s an elite one, especially from a left-handed pitcher.”
The only Phillies pitcher with more swings and misses on any pitch since at least 2008? Vince Velasquez’s 20 whiffs on his four-seam fastball in a 16-strikeout shutout against the Padres in April 2016.
“That’s going to be a key arm for us going down the stretch,” Schwarber said.
The Phillies have 16 games to play. How many wins will it take to clinch the top NL Wild Card slot, which would allow them to host a best-of-three NL Wild Card Series? Nine? 10? More?
“We’ve got to get after it in St. Louis,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “We’ll bounce back. This group is resilient.”