ATLANTA — The Phillies played a home run derby against the best team in baseball on Monday night, using longballs from five different players and six sharp innings from ace Zack Wheeler to beat the Braves 7-1.
Wheeler gave up a home run to the second batter he faced, Ozzie Albies, and then was flawless the rest of the way with a fastball that averaged 96 mph and even better command. It was a big rebound after allowing six runs and three homers to the same Braves last Tuesday at home. Monday’s series opener was the Braves’ quietest offensive game since May 12, the only other time this season they were held to one run on three hits or worse.
“You want to show them after the last outing, ‘Hey, you still have to deal with me,'” he said. “The mental aspect, for them and for me, just getting back on track. They know it’s still me, you could say.”
Wheeler retired the Braves in order three times in his six innings. He is 12-6 with a 3.63 ERA in 30 starts. He plans to make two more in the regular season, both against the Mets. The last one could be a shortened start if the Phillies clinched the top wild card spot by then.
The Phils (82-68) lead the Diamondbacks by 3.5 games for the fourth seed, which comes with home field advantage in the wild card round. They also own the tiebreaker over the Diamondbacks, leading 4½ games with 12 to play. The Phillies’ magic number to clinch the first wild-card spot is 9.
Rookie Johan Rojas was the first on the visiting side to go deep into the field. He hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the second inning to secure a lead that lasted the rest of the way. The first home run of his big league career was out of position, so this was his first “real” one. He was the primary difference maker in the area and a spark plug that held up in the bottom of the order, hitting .300 with a .344 on-base percentage in 133 plate appearances.
“At times like this, it not only gives us confidence, but it builds chemistry in the clubhouse,” Rojas said. “Seranthony (Dominguez) was kidding me a while ago saying, ‘You finally hit a homer off a real pitcher.’ It’s the little things like that that are really good for the group.
“Overall, I feel pretty good here in the big leagues. I give it 100 percent, it’s always about the best effort you’ll see from me. I’m enjoying this moment as much as I can. I feel like, we’re all family here. We see each other as family. I’ve always wanted to be here and I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto and Nick Castellanos hit solo homers in the third, fourth and sixth innings. Harper’s was a thing of beauty, a simple swing at a pitch off the plate that he took the opposite way.
Three batters after Castellanos homered, Kyle Schwarber hit by far the hardest of the bunch, blasting 483 feet into right field. It was the second-longest home run in Truist Park’s seven-year history, behind only 495 feet by Ronald Acuña Jr.
“Hell, I’d take it in the first place,” he said. “It was a good offensive day for all of us. Home runs are home runs, but I felt the at-bats were pretty good.”
Schwarber has 45 home runs, Trea Turner has 26, Castellanos has 25, JT Realmuto has 19, Harper has 18, Alec Bohm has 17 and Bryson Stott has 15. The Braves are the only team since the All-Star break with more homers than the Phillies.
“We’ve been throwing pretty good at-bats against everybody,” manager Rob Thomson said. “What’s really encouraging is that we kept their runs down. Wheeler did a great job. That’s what you have to do.”
The Braves have won six straight division titles and celebrated the last one at the Phillies’ home field last week. Despite how dominant the Braves have been, the Phillies are 39-43 against them since 2019, a .476 winning percentage. In the same span, the rest of MLB is 249-401 vs. Atlanta, .383 winning percentage. If the Phils had the same success rate as the rest of the league, they would have lost eight more games to the Braves than they have in those five years.
The Phillies aren’t afraid of the Braves any more than the Marlins are afraid of the Phils. They could find themselves back in Atlanta in three weeks, as the Braves would be an NLDS opponent if the Phillies advance past the wild-card round.
After losing five of seven games at Citizens Bank Park last week, the Phillies have won three of four to open a six-game road trip. They want to win the series on Tuesday night. Cristopher Sanchez will start and he will be pulled on his back by Michael Lorenzen. Ace Spencer Strider goes to Atlanta.
“Whenever we go up against these guys,” Schwarber said, “we always feel like it’s going to be a dogfight.”