What will be the deciding factor in the NLDS?

3 months ago 12

October 14th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- After splitting the first two games of the National League Division Series in Atlanta, the Braves and Phillies now find themselves in what essentially amounts to a best-of-three series -- one in which Philadelphia holds home-field advantage.

The first two games haven’t played out the way many expected. The Braves dropped Game 1 with their ace on the mound, then the Phillies did the same in Game 2. has more bunts than home runs. and are each 1-for-8 -- and neither has an extra-base hit. doesn’t have a hit period.

So with not much going as planned through two games, let’s take a look at the three factors that will determine which of these teams ultimately advances to the NL Championship Series.

What impact will Strider have?
will take the mound for the first time since Sept. 18 when he starts Game 3 on Friday at Citizens Bank Park.

It's unclear what type of limits Strider will have when it comes to pitch count or innings, especially since the rookie right-hander has only thrown what manager Brian Snitker called “one and a half” bullpen sessions since the oblique issue first popped up -- and Strider hasn't simulated any up-down scenarios.

“I think we feel comfortable where he is at health-wise and all,” Snitker said. “And whenever we decide to put him out there, it’s going to remain to be seen whether the layoff affected him or not.”

Therein lies the key. Though Strider is returning to the mound for Atlanta, it’s unclear how effective he will be -- or for how long he can pitch before the Braves need to turn to their bullpen. But if he’s anywhere near his normal self, it could certainly swing the entire NLDS.

Strider posted a 2.67 ERA while racking up 202 strikeouts in 131 2/3 innings this season. His 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings was the second-highest total in MLB history among pitchers with at least 130 innings, just decimal points behind Gerrit Cole’s 13.818 in 2019.

And no team knows that better than the Phillies.

In three starts against Philadelphia, Strider allowed just three runs over 18 2/3 innings (1.45 ERA). He had 29 strikeouts and allowed only seven hits. Outside of , who went 3-for-9 against Strider, all other Phillies on the NLDS roster went a combined 2-for-52 (.038) with 29 strikeouts.

Will Phillies stars turn it around?
Harper is 6-for-14 (.429) this postseason, including 4-for-7 (.571) with a pair of doubles in the NLDS -- but he hasn’t had many RBI opportunities despite hitting out of the cleanup spot.

That’s because leadoff hitter Schwarber, who led the NL with 46 home runs this season, is 0-for-16 with eight strikeouts in the postseason. Directly behind him,  is just 1-for-18 with six K’s.

“I think days off can help guys in a lot of different ways,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said in reference to Thursday’s off-day. “I think Hoskins is getting close. He's starting to loft a lot of balls and square up balls -- he's just not squaring them up enough. But Schwarbs is caught in between a little bit. He's just maybe trying to do a little too much. Maybe a day off helps those guys a lot.”

The results of those struggles have been obvious every time Harper steps to the plate. He’s led off an inning in five of his 17 plate appearances this postseason. Ten of those 17 have come with the bases empty -- and only one has come with a runner in scoring position.

So is there any chance Thomson changes up his batting order for Game 3?

Who gets the big hit?
The Phillies strung together two-out singles and deployed some small ball to win Game 1, while a hit-by-pitch and a seeing-eye single allowed the Braves to break through in Game 2.

But each club has the potential to alter a game -- or even an entire series -- with one swing.

Atlanta led the Majors in team slugging percentage (.443) and ranked second in homers (243) this season. Philadelphia ranked sixth in both categories.

Yet through two games against the Braves, the Phillies have yet to homer. They’ve also dropped down four sacrifice bunts in four games this postseason after having only six in 162 regular-season games.

As for the Braves, they won Game 2 without producing an extra-base hit -- something they didn’t do in a nine-inning game all season. They won a 10-inning game without an extra-base hit on June 3 in Colorado, but that came with the aid of starting the 10th with the automatic runner on second base.

“One swing could change a series,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “But I think, when you get in the playoffs and you're facing good pitching, it's all the little things you do.”

Still, one big swing -- be it from Harper, Schwarber, Riley, or perhaps an unsung hero -- could certainly tip the scales.

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