Image credit: © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
This article was originally published on October 13, 2023.
Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
When the gates open at Citizens Bank Park, the people on the other side don’t saunter in, hands in their pockets, for a stroll around the diamond and a glimpse at batting practice. They come thundering down the concourse to grab one of the limited number of premium standing-room spots like they’re chasing somebody who just stole their bike.
But here, in the clinching game of the NLDS between the favored, 104-win Braves and the 90-win wild card Phillies, everybody has their spot. For these galloping fans who are throwing an alarmingly low number of elbows, their spot is above the visitors’ bullpen, where the broad or devastatingly personal insults they will hurl onto the Braves relievers below will eventually result in the bullpen calling stadium security. Hey, at least they weren’t throwing garbage.
Last year, they came in with excitement. This year, it’s expectations. Fans are showing up to a playoff game with playoff experience—something they haven’t brought with them since the jerseys said Utley and Rollins; Howard and Burrell. But everybody knows exactly where to go.
Ranger Suárez’s spot is on the mound. He is going to undo his top two uniform buttons—as decreed for the Phillies at this point as beardless faces are for the Yankees—and he is going to maintain his sub-2.00 postseason ERA: At 1.16, it will be the third best all-time among pitchers who’ve made at least five playoff starts.
Bryce Harper’s spot is in Orlando Arcia’s head. The Atlanta shortstop couldn’t have thought he’d be triggering a revenge plot by making casual mention of Harper’s base running out to end game two. But, thanks to members of the media being allowed in a major league clubhouse for the first time ever, his little comment reached the only ears he didn’t want it to and now he and Harper are in a thing. It got settled last night after Harper homered twice in Game 3, letting Arcia get a good look at him as he rounded second, but the fans aren’t ready to let it go. If you want them to forget something here, you’re going to have to wait until everybody’s dead.
Trea Turner’s spot is in the batter’s box. He has the highest batting average of the postseason among non-eliminated teams (.500), with six extra-base hits in 24 at-bats and four stolen bases. No one is really talking about this. That’s either because it’s very normal for Trea Turner to be good at baseball again, or because there’s enough other stunning performances coming out of this Phillies team that Turner’s success is kind of buried.
Garrett Stubbs’ spot is the most important of all. He is in the clubhouse, checking the beer capacity of the pockets of his overalls. He is thinking about later, when audio of Buster Olney talking about the Phillies’ team chemistry will play over the visual of him jamming them full of cold ones and howling. There are vague memories within the Phillies organization of Stubbs being acquired from Houston. But his presence is so strong that his origin story has to be more ridiculous than a phone call and some paper work. Maybe he was discovered sleeping in a washing machine during spring training and, once awakened by the wafting scent of Jell-O shots, announced that he was the back-up catcher. Does he ride a tricycle to work every day? Probably.
Nick Castellanos’ spot seems to be in deep left field. That’s where he keeps all his favorite baseballs, anyway.
Spencer Strider’s spot is on the mound. The Braves’ ace will get the ball tonight, but he’ll also be holding Atlanta’s hopes for a deep playoff run in his hand. With every pitch, every bat that hits nothing but air, every out that keeps the Phillies off the board, he will inspire hope in a team that has been scuffling to remember who it is throughout the NLDS—a top to bottom lineup of massive threats that collectively slugs over .500.
The Phillies know where Strider will be, too. It’s the same place he was in game one. Strider’s too good to let you stack up base runners and start knocking them in—you have to get lucky or strategic with an ambush and blast one of his rare mistakes out of the ballpark. If you’re hoping to get a few men on and then put one in the corner, well; see you next spring.
This game won’t just be lively; it will be alive. Waves of bright red humanity are filling every opening of this structure and it’s only batting practice. Somewhere within the pot-boiling drama of the Atlanta Braves is a ball team that still intends on winning a postseason series. But the home team has its heart and exposed chest hairs set on a repeat of last year, when not even Strider in his spot could fight off elimination.
As first pitch approaches, the victorious and constantly sexual nature of the 2023 Phillies has them about to suggestively thrust their way into the NLCS. The Braves have to win tonight and then again a day later, and more importantly, they have to believe that that is possible in an environment constructed to make them believe the opposite. The Phillies are just going to need a couple well-timed punches off a pitcher whose numbers after four days’ rest are noticeably worse than five.
Ronald Acuña, Jr.’s name is the first one announced by Dan Baker as the lineups are introduced. A woman in Ashburn Alley gives him a tall, proud middle finger. There’s a homemade, spray-painted banner hanging above the press box that just reads “ATTABOY.” A guy with a demon clown mask propped up on the top of his head quietly refuels with a personal pizza.
There’s a long night ahead, no matter where you’re standing.
Thursday, 11:35 p.m.
The problem isn’t the Braves.
They clearly have their own problems: The garbage-throwing, the layoff-complaining, the NLDS-losing, and have you heard about these people who sneak into the Atlanta locker room to report what everybody’s saying and doing in there?
The problem isn’t the Diamondbacks, either.
They took down a limp 100-win Dodgers squad to advance to the NLCS. Now, two scrappy longshots will clash and the resulting narratives will challenge humanity’s capacity for teams of destiny. But that’s all for Monday. Not now.
No; right now, the problem is—how are we getting into Xfinity Live without waiting in this line?
People keep talking about a parade at the end of all this, but I’m pretty sure we were just in one when we walked across the street from the stadium. We marched to a steady beat of car horns and police whistles and a woman screaming “…because he’s a fucking jerk-off,” probably about some guy who’s a fucking jerk-off. Tailgates were reinstituted with whatever was left over from four hours ago when everybody made a beeline for the gate, like they’d put out their lawn chairs the night before for a good view of the action.
The $10 cover is bullshit, especially for this corporate shopping mall but for drinking, but in a little bit the Phillies are going to be in there belting out “Dancing On My Own” from the VIP balcony. Stubbs and Kyle Schwarber are going to hoist Liam Castellanos up on their shoulders as the mob screams with glee at the child. And I don’t mean to be dramatic, but if we’re not in there when that happens I am going to drive my car through one of the entrances.
Sure; it may be classified in the police manual as an “act of terrorism,” but you know what? I felt pretty terrorized for the last nine outs. When Ronald Acuña, Jr. drove that ball to left center with the bases loaded, terror was one of the devastating emotions that swelled in my stomach and crawled up my throat. By the time Johan Rojas was having a celebratory slap fight with Brandon Marsh after making the catch I had already climbed most of the way into a trash can.
The Phillies bullpen had managed to keep the Braves a small distance away from a dramatic comeback win, but Acuña did come up in the seventh with two outs and the bases loaded. He launched a 2-2 four-seamer to left center, where it appeared destined for nightmares.
In those moments, it all came apart.
The vibes were good. The morale was high. But even those people stampeding into the stadium hours before game time had a wretched little ball of hate living in their gut. You can’t get rid of it in this city; there’s always a little part of you that’s so fucking mad, that’s so fucking gutted, so fucking bitter and jaded and miserable that you can barely bring yourself to cross the street. I personally once watched a rat missing a leg crawl out of a sewer grate at Frankford and Girard, and scuttle all the way across the intersection only to get wetly squashed under a car tire just as it approached the other side. Not even the three-legged rats catch a break in this town.
And that little part of you lets you think anything is possible—anything that results in the cruel undoing of your hopes and dreams, that is, whether they are to make the playoffs or survive a street crossing. Acuña’s ball soars toward the wall—if it makes contact, it will presumably scamper into no man’s land as the Braves circle the bases, take the lead, win the game, and finally get to play in some peace and quiet at home for game five.
Rojas is there, and he positions himself with a little hop to make the grab. The inning is over. The threat is dissolved. And the Phillies are still winning, 3-1.
Like somebody signing a lease in Brewerytown circa 2010, the Phillies aren’t relying on a whole lot of insurance. They’ve attacked Strider exactly how they’ve attacked a lot of pitchers: Suddenly, powerfully, and a couple of times. Nick Castellanos was first, tying the game 1-1 after Austin Riley’s attempt at heroics. Trea Turner went next, padding his massive playoff numbers to give the Phillies a 2-1 lead. Then Castellanos went again, inspiring a level of joy in his son that can only be described in meme form.
They showed Tyrese Maxey, Fletcher Cox, and Joel Embiid on PhanaVision and. Despite the clamoring of Sixers fans to keep that team out of CBP for the duration of the playoffs due to their last abrupt and unpleasant NBA playoff exit that left all of these people scorned and furious months later, Maxey and Embiid got enough cheers to feel beloved. Cox did the Phillies’ on-base ball-juggling celebration to the delight of the masses and was later seen gleefully taking part in their locker room celebration. The Phillies’ vibes are so strong, other athletes wander in from across the street to feed off them.
So, yeah. We can be athletes too; at least, long enough to get inside this building. I believe they call this a “retaining wall” because of how much human weight it can retain when we throw our bodies at it. So let’s give that a go.
Why does that cop have his mace out.
Friday, 9:15 a.m.
In the regular season, nobody scored more than the Braves. Their 947 runs made them the only team other than the Dodgers to cross the 900-run threshold. The Phillies didn’t even crack 800. But in the last week, the Phillies have outscored the Braves 20-8 and hit more homers (11) than Atlanta scored runs (8).
Even the pigeons on Market Street appear to be jubilantly tossing their bread scraps in the air as they feast.
Three days. Three days of rest until the NLCS begins against the Diamondbacks. Then, they’re going to open those gates and let the people rush in all over again. Because it’s the playoffs, and everybody has their spot.
A woman walks by a group of people at a bus stop wearing a Phillies jersey.
“Yooo,” a guy says as she passes. “She’s wearing a Burrell jersey! LET’S FUCKING GO!!”
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.