Two years ago as the Phillies and Atlanta Braves played for the final time in late August, it was fair to wonder which of the two rebuilding teams could bounce back into playoff contention faster. The Braves and Phillies have been the most dominant teams in the National League East in this century, combining for 13 of the 19 division titles, and even as they were struggling two seasons ago, they still appeared to be teams on the rise.
Despite finishing behind the Braves and every other team in their division in 2017, manager Pete Mackanin’s young squad won 13 of the 19 games it played against Atlanta. The Braves had the better farm system — in fact, they had the best one in the game, according to Baseball America — but the Phillies’ minor-league talent pool was considered pretty deep, too. The Phillies also had the deeper pockets and the wherewithal to add some of the game’s talented free agents, which they did by signing Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta before the 2018 season and Bryce Harper before this season.
We know now, of course, that the Braves have won the race to be good again. They settled that score last season when they won 90 games and claimed their first NL East title since 2013 and just their second since 2005, the year they won an unprecedented 14th straight division title. The Phillies held first into mid-August but stumbled to the finish line and ended up 10 games behind the Braves.
This year, the Phillies’ fall from first place occurred in June when a 2-10 stretch that included a season-high seven-game losing streak left them 6 ½ games behind the Braves. That deficit had grown to 14 games by the time the Braves arrived for the start of a four-game series Monday night at Citizens Bank Park and the debate about which team could one day be great again is over, too.
The gap, by the way, grew to 15 games this season and 25 over the last two years as the Braves jumped on righthander Aaron Nola for four runs in the first two innings on their way to a 7-2 victory.
The Braves still have a chance to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the National League. The Phillies are trying to catch the Chicago Cubs for the league’s second wild card.
When asked how such a wide gap had developed between his team and the Braves, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler did not offer an answer before Monday’s game.
“I think it’s important that we keep focused on the step right in front of us, which is winning tonight’s baseball game,” he said. “I believe that nothing is impossible. More importantly, I think we’re chasing down any potential playoff spot and we’re two games back of a wild-card position, and if we continue to fight and we are gritty … I am very confident this club is going to battle all the way to the finish line.”
That’s nice, but even if the Phillies do beat the long odds and claim a playoff berth, the gap between themselves and the Braves will remain real and vast.
Explaining it is easy. The Braves’ projected young stars — centerfielder Ronald Acuna, second baseman Ozzie Albies, and pitchers Mike Soroka, Julio Teheran, and Max Fried — have become either stars or superstars. Add that talent pool to Freddie Freeman, who was already one of the best hitters in the game, and this year’s shrewd free-agent additions of Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel on one-year deals, and it’s easy to see why the Braves could be headed for their first 100-win season since 2003.
The Braves’ immense talent was on immediate display Monday night when Acuna turned on an up-and-in fastball from Nola and hit his 38th home run of the year. He’s one of three Braves with 30-plus homers. Freeman also has 38 and Donaldson hit his 37th in the seventh inning off Nick Pivetta.
Harper is the Phillies’ only hitter with 30 home runs.
Some of the young talent the Phillies saw coming in 2017 has either arrived or helped strengthen the team through trade. Jorge Alfaro and Sixto Sanchez have allowed the Phillies to acquire a star catcher in J.T. Realmuto, and J.P. Crawford, along with Santana, allowed the team to upgrade with Jean Segura at shortstop.
Rhys Hoskins has become one of the game’s top power hitters and on-base guys, but he is not at the same talent level as Acuna, who should win a few MVP awards before his career is over. Scott Kingery has also had a sensational second season, but it falls short of what Albies has become for the Braves. Maybe Kingery can get in the conversation about elite second basemen if ever becomes a second baseman.
The Braves have also surpassed the Phillies in the pitching department. Nola looked like he was emerging as an ace in 2017 and he has lived up to that title even though this season has not been as good as last season. After that, however, the Phillies have failed to develop another starter behind him while Soroka, Fried, and Teheran have become mainstays for Atlanta. The Braves have gone 57-26 when that under-30 trio has pitched this season.
By comparison, the Phillies are 26-31 in games started by the trio of Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and Pivetta.