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Phillies at Braves: What you need to know about Philly’s most important series in 10 years

The next three games against the Braves could decide the season as the Phillies try to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

The playoff aspirations of Bryce Harper's MVP-caliber season will be put to the test against the Braves starting Tuesday.
The playoff aspirations of Bryce Harper's MVP-caliber season will be put to the test against the Braves starting Tuesday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Bryce Harper got his wish.

He had said earlier this month that the Phillies just needed to be “in striking distance when we get to Atlanta” and they’d be OK. The Phillies flew Sunday to Atlanta, where they will open a three-game series Tuesday night against the Braves, who lead them by 2½ games with six to play. That’s striking distance.

It’s been 10 years since the Phillies last reached the playoffs and they have not been in first place in September since the final day of the 2011 season. It’s been a while and the Phillies still have an uphill climb to October, but they could finally break through this week. In order to control their own fate, the Phillies will have to sweep the Braves in Atlanta for the first time since 2014.

» READ MORE: Sweep the Braves? What making (and missing) postseason would mean for the Phillies.

The three-game series at Truist Park is the franchise’s most important series since their 102-win club was bounced by the Cardinals in the 2011 National League Division Series. If they take care of business this week, the Phillies could be back in the NLDS. Stumble and the NL’s longest postseason drought likely continues.

Here’s everything you need to know about the next three games:

Game 1

RHP Zack Wheeler (14-9, 2.79 ERA) vs. RHP Charlie Morton (13-6, 3.53 ERA), 7:20 p.m.

Wheeler was on the Mets in 2015 when they won the pennant, but he missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in spring training. He’s been pining ever since to get to October and this is the closest he’s ever come to first place. That’s why Tuesday - against the team Wheeler grew up rooting for - is such an important start. He leads the majors in strikeouts and innings pitched and has established himself this season as the team’s No. 1 starter after signing here to be a complement to Aaron Nola. He’s emerged as an ace and shutting down the Braves in a must-win game seems like something for an ace to do.

Morton resurrected his career after making just four starts with the Phillies in 2016 before injuring his hamstring. He pitched the last out of the 2017 World Series, was a Cy Young finalist in 2019, and has been to two All-Star games. He’s bounced back this season after a subpar 2020. Morton has a 3.60 ERA this month and the Braves have lost five of his last six starts.

Game 2

RHP Aaron Nola (9-8, 4.64 ERA) vs. LHP Max Fried (13-7, 3.12 ERA), 7:20 p.m.

Nola said earlier this month that he was tired of hearing about his September shortcomings, but he has not done much this month to quiet that conversation. He’s twice allowed six earned runs, yet the offense bailed him out both times. This would be a chance for Nola to pay them back. J.T. Realmuto said in April he doesn’t know where questions about Nola’s ace status come from “but it’s not from people who know baseball.” The Phillies don’t need him to be an ace, they just need him to keep them in games. After allowing six runs last week against Pittsburgh, Nola retired the final nine batters he faced. That’s the pitcher the Phils need on Wednesday.

Fried has been good all year, but he’s reached another level in the second half. He tossed a 98-pitch shutout on Friday in San Diego and his 1.78 ERA since the All-Star break is tied with Max Scherzer for the major-league lead. And he’s left-handed, which means trouble for the Phillies, who are 6-8 in their last 14 games against left-handed starters.

Game 3

RHP Kyle Gibson (10-8, 3.60 ERA) vs. RHP Ian Anderson (8-5, 3.60 ERA), 7:20 p.m.

The Phillies could swap Gibson for Ranger Suárez, who would be able to pitch on regular rest following his 97-pitch shutout on Saturday. Suárez has a 1.69 ERA since moving to the rotation on Aug. 2 and would give the Phillies their best chance to win on Thursday. If they ride Gibson, they’ll need more than what he gave them on Friday. He homered in the third inning and then allowed four runs in the next inning. Gibson has a 4.87 ERA in 11 games since joining the Phillies at the trade deadline, but his biggest problem has been big innings. He’ll need to avoid that on Wednesday.

» READ MORE: How the deadline deal that proved to be lifeline for Phillies’ playoff hopes went down

Anderson was selected two picks after No. 1 pick Mickey Moniak in 2016. He has nine strikeouts per nine innings this season, but has 24 strikeouts in his last 17⅔ innings. He dominated the woeful Diamondbacks last week, but did allow four runs in San Francisco, showing that a good team could crack him. The Phillies aren’t the Giants, but they’re not the Diamondbacks, even though they struggled to beat them.

Three Phillies storylines

Will they pitch to Bryce Harper?

Bryce Harper has 13 walks over the last nine games, becoming the first Phillies player since 2007 to walk in nine straight games. His walk-rate this month (23.1%) is a season-high as teams seem to be pitching around the MVP favorite. But the majority of those walks have come against losing teams as the Phillies have played just three games this month against a postseason contender. And when they did, Milwaukee walked Harper three straight times after he homered in the first inning of the series final. A team playing for something has much less reason to challenge Harper than teams like the Orioles and Pirates. It will be interesting to see how Atlanta attacks him.

Can Héctor Neris overcome his Atlanta demons?

Neris has been the Phillies’ top reliever since allowing six runs while recording just two outs on July 4. Ian Kennedy is the closer, but Neris is the key to the late-inning puzzle. But Truist Park is not his favorite venue. Neris blew a save here in May and has had some nightmarish outings in Atlanta. He has a 7.71 ERA in 16 appearances at the five-year-old ballpark. Neris has appeared in 401 games without reaching the postseason, which is the longest drought among active pitchers. To finally get to October, he’ll have to conquer his past.

Who’s in the bullpen?

So the Phillies will have Neris and Kennedy, but they won’t have Archie Bradley, who is out for the season. Connor Brogdon is scheduled to return Tuesday, but Sam Coonrod’s status is uncertain as he manages a thumb issue. Jose Alvarado is Joe Girardi’s left-hander for high-leverage situations, but the right-handed options are thin after Neris and Kennedy due to the injuries to Bradley and Coonrod. The Phillies won’t have time to ease Brogdon back.

Three Braves storylines

What happened to the bullpen?

The Braves’ bullpen was just like the Phillies’ in the first half: hard to trust. Atlanta’s relievers had a 4.58 ERA before the break while the Phils had a 4.75. But unlike the Phils, things changed for Atlanta in the second half. Atlanta’s 3.30 bullpen ERA in the second half is the third best in the NL. Left-hander Tyler Matzek and right-hander Luke Jackson have been lights out and Richard Rodriguez has pitched in big spots since coming over from Pittsburgh. Closer Will Smith can make it interesting (he walked the bases loaded on Sunday), but he has converted 17 of his 21 save chances since the break. The late innings could be a challenge.

Can Freddie Freeman keep hurting the Phillies?

Somehow, the Phillies held Freddie Freeman without a hit during the first three games of the season. Since then, he’s 16 for 51 (.314) with seven homers in 13 games. Freeman is a .299 career hitter against the Phillies with a .900 OPS and 30 homers in 191 games. Shutting him down like they did in April was likely an anomaly so the Phillies have to hope they can just limit the damage this week. Freeman is getting hot at the right time, hitting .337 this month with a .951 OPS. Like always, he’ll be a tough out.

How did they overcome losing Ronald Acuña Jr.?

Imagine the Phillies losing Harper in July and practically not skipping a beat. That’s what happened to the Braves when superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL. It helps to have Freeman in the lineup, but the Braves likely aren’t here without Austin Riley, the third baseman who has hit .330 with a .971 OPS since Acuña went down. He’ll likely garner some MVP votes. Credit to Atlanta president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, who didn’t punt after losing Acuña. Instead, he acquired four outfielders: Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario. Rosario, Duvall, and Soler each have an OPS better than .844 since joining the Braves. Since losing Acuña, the Braves have scored the most runs in the NL and are averaging 5.16 runs per game.