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‘It Feels Like Failure’: The Braves’ Promising Season Is Over

This team was better than the one that won the World Series last year. That’s what makes this early exit so painful.

PHILADELPHIA — In the gloom of the Braves’ clubhouse after Game 4 of the NLDS, someone flipped a switch. For a moment, the room grew sadly, appropriately dim. And then it flipped back: Maybe it had been a mistake, or maybe it seemed pointless only after it was done, but either way, the lights turned back on almost immediately. It was obvious there was no use for mood lighting here. With this mood? Better to look at the situation head-on.

There is no early playoff exit that would have felt right for these Braves. That’s a product of the fact that they were reigning champions, that this regular season was even better for them than the last one, that so much of their year had been focused on the future—long-term extensions, big commitments, discussion of a winning foundation that was meant to last for half a decade. It was only natural that this season would end in disappointment if it finished with anything other than a parade.

But an ending like this was especially—painfully—hard to process.

Atlanta’s Charlie Morton wipes his face as he labored through his start against the Phillies.

Braves starter Charlie Morton allowed three runs in two innings on Saturday.

“It feels like failure,” said Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, his voice catching at one point. “That’s… the hardest part to come to terms with. Because we were so successful for so long. But we just didn’t get things done when it mattered.”

It was not only that the Braves lost to the Phillies, 8–3, as they tried and failed to force a Game 5. It was how they did so: The entire afternoon felt rather surreal. Where to begin?

First, the Phillies got on the board with a three-run homer from No. 9 hitter Brandon Marsh, the youngest member of this roster, acquired primarily for his defense. They kept scoring with an inside-the-park home run from catcher J.T. Realmuto—an event that’s improbability might be qualified statistically, with sprint speed and historical qualifiers and other such information, but why bother, when you have the phrase “inside-the-park home run from catcher J.T. Realmuto”? The Phillies’ defense was consistently sharp. In what was functionally a bullpen game—Game 4 starter Noah Syndergaard was converted to relief late in the season and was not expected to provide any length on Saturday—the relievers shone. The Phillies’ pitchers did not walk a single Braves hitter. They only had to pitch with a man on base once. (Atlanta second baseman Orlando Arcia had a two-out single in the fifth; Philadelphia ended the inning on the very next pitch.) The only Braves runs came on three solo homers. The Phillies, meanwhile, didn’t convert all of their chances to score, but they didn’t have to: They had so many of them.

To put it lightly: This was not what many had guessed from this series on paper.

It was unexpected. But it could not feel inexplicable. The Phillies played like the better team this week, in every way, and the Braves had no answer for it.

“They played great baseball,” said Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud. “They beat us. Simple as that.”

The series was a showcase of what the Phillies can be at their best. If no one expected this team to be here in June—well, this isn’t the same club it was in June. The areas of the roster that were once punchlines have become far less funny. Their young talent has begun to find its footing. The Philadelphia front office worked at the trade deadline to upgrade its biggest weak spots—its defense and bullpen—and the team reaped the benefits this week. There’s been development here across the board: Even an offense built to slug demonstrated that it could score however it needed.

“They did a heck of a job coming out early,” said Braves starter Charlie Morton. “Not overly aggressive, but patient, looking for pitches and just taking singles… They kind of grinded out at bats against everybody. Their approaches were really good.”

All of which is to say: Yes, the playoffs feel inherently chaotic by virtue of their small sample size, with results that can occasionally seem capricious or fickle or simply nonsensical. Whenever a third-place team like the Phillies defeats a 101-win, best-in-division reigning champion like the Braves, there are bound to be comments about randomness and chance. But this series win did not feel like a fluke. It felt simple: The Phillies just looked that much better than the Braves.

It’s true that Atlanta had its share of bad luck: Game 1 starter Max Fried was coming off the stomach flu and Game 3 starter Spencer Strider was coming off the injured list. Both unraveled. But there was much more to this loss than that. There was little offensive production from key hitters like Swanson (2-for-16 with seven strikeouts) and third baseman Austin Riley (1-for-15). “I want to help this team more than anything. I didn’t,” Riley said, noting that he felt the mechanics of his swing had been off in a way he’d struggled to fix. “That’s going to be something that’s a tough pill to swallow.” Even the Phillies’ wackiest moment of the series felt more like a Braves miscue than anything. The Realmuto inside-the-park home run was possible only because Braves right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. stood motionless as the ball dropped into center. (“I just didn’t think it was going to bounce off the wall the way it did,” Acuña said through a translator. “I thought it was going to be a flyout.” ) And there were managerial questions to ask, too: Brian Snitker’s approach to his pitching staff looked far more reactive than proactive at times.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto slides across home plate to score on his inside-the-park home run in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Braves.

Yes, Realmuto, the Phillies catcher, hit an inside-the-park home run in NLDS Game 4.

“The momentum just kept building and building with each day’s game,” said Braves center fielder Michael Harris II. “We just had to try to find ways to stop the momentum, but it was pretty tough with their crowd. They were just going to find a way to produce for their team.”

The Phillies did. The Braves never quite could. The lights may have come back on in the clubhouse, if only until the end of the night. They’re out for good on this promising season.

More MLB Coverage:
The Cathartic Spike of the Phillies’ Big Night
Surprise! The Phillies Can Do No Wrong
• The Late Poetics of Freddie Freeman
Astro in Exile: Jeff Luhnow’s Next Act