ATLANTA — The Phillies played home run derby against the best team in baseball 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, then was spotless the rest of the way with a fastball that averaged 96 mph and even better command. It was a big bounce-back outing after he allowed six runs and three homers to these 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’ve been held to one run on three hits or worse.
“You want to kind of, after last outing, show them, ‘Hey, you’ve still got to deal with me,'” he said. “The mental aspect, for them and for me, just getting back on track. They know that I’m still me, I guess you could say.”
Wheeler retired the Braves in order three times in his six innings. He is 12-6 with a 3.63 ERA through 30 starts. He’s slated to make two more in the regular season, both against the Mets. The last one could be an abbreviated start if the Phillies have the top wild-card spot clinched by then.
The Phils (82-68) lead the Diamondbacks by 3½ games for the fourth-seed, which comes with home-field advantage in the wild-card round. They also own the tiebreaker over the Diamondbacks, which makes the lead 4½ games with 12 left to play. The Phillies’ magic number to clinch the top wild-card spot is 9.
Rookie center fielder Johan Rojas was the first on the visiting side to go deep. He hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the second inning to provide a lead that lasted the rest of the way. The first home run of his big-league career was off of a position player, so this was his first “real” one. He’s been a major difference-maker in the field and a spark plug who has held his own at the bottom of the order, hitting .300 with a .344 on-base percentage in 133 plate appearances.
“Moments like this, not only does it give us confidence but it builds chemistry in the clubhouse,” Rojas said. “Seranthony (Dominguez) was joking with me a little while ago saying, ‘Finally, you finally hit a homer off of an actual pitcher.’ It’s the little things like that, they’re really good for the group.
“Overall, I feel pretty good here in the big leagues. I’m giving 100 percent, it’s always about that maximum effort you’re going to see out of me. I’m enjoying this moment as much as I can. I feel like, here, we’re all family. We see each other as family. I’ve always wanted to be here and I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Nick Castellanos hit solo homers in the third, fourth and sixth innings. Harper’s was a thing of beauty, a simple swing on a pitch outside off the plate that he took the other way.
Three batters after Castellanos homered, Kyle Schwarber hit by far the hardest one of all, homering 483 feet to right field. It was the second-longest home run in the seven-year history of Truist Park, behind only a 495-footer from Ronald Acuña Jr.
“Heck, I would’ve taken it if it went in the first row,” he said. “It was a good offensive day all around for all of us. Home runs are home runs but I felt like the at-bats were pretty good.”
Schwarber has 45 home runs, Trea Turner has 26, Castellanos has 25, J.T. 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 swinging the bats pretty well against everybody,” manager Rob Thomson said. “The really encouraging thing is that we kept their runs down. Wheeler did a great job. That’s what you have to do.”
The Braves have won six consecutive division titles and celebrated their most recent one on the Phillies’ home field just last week. Despite how dominant the Braves have been, the Phillies are 39-43 against them since 2019, a .476 winning percentage. Over that same span, the rest of MLB is 249-401 vs. Atlanta, a .383 winning percentage. If the Phils had the same success rate as the rest of the league, they’d have lost eight more games to the Braves than they have during that five-year period.
The Phillies aren’t intimidated by the Braves, the same way the Marlins don’t fear the Phils. They could find themselves right back in Atlanta in three weeks because the Braves would be the 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 begin a six-game road trip. They look to win the series Tuesday night. Cristopher Sanchez will start and be piggybacked by Michael Lorenzen. Ace Spencer Strider goes for Atlanta.
“Whenever we match up with these guys,” Schwarber said, “we always feel like it’s going to be a dogfight.”
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