ATLANTA — There are few surprises in Major League Baseball, especially in a matchup of two teams that faced each other 19 times during the regular season.
Or, as left-hander Ranger Suárez said on the eve of his start for the Phillies against the Braves in Game 1 of the NL Division Series at Truist Park on Tuesday, “There’s no secret between them and me.”
“It’s good,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, “because we don’t have to sit in that room and beat ourselves up for three hours when you’re doing advance [scouting]. We’re very familiar with them. They are with us. They’re back to full strength, too. They’re playing very well. They’ve got that edge.”
Here are four factors that could help define this all-NL East NLDS:
1. Rest vs. rust
Both teams played meaningful games all the way to the end of the regular season, but then the Phillies got a headstart on postseason play with their two-game sweep of the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card Series while the Braves rested up.
That can be a good thing. Or, it can be a bad thing. Take last year, when the Brewers spent the final two weeks of the regular season resting up while cruising to a division crown, only to be held to six total runs while losing in four games to the Braves.
In recent days, these Braves have stayed busy with workouts and live bullpens at Truist Park. Said Snitker, “It’s kind of like Spring Training a little bit.”
Truist Park will definitely not feel like Spring Training on Tuesday.
“Your body is a funny thing,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “When your mind starts to wander off, the body starts to feel worse. So, I feel like we’ve done a good job of getting everything back in sync the past couple of days and challenging ourselves as we move forward.”
2. The bullpens
Among the 273 pitchers who faced at least 250 batters in 2022, four of MLB’s sixth-lowest expected batting averages against are featured in this series: The Braves’ Kenley Jansen (.169), the Phillies’ David Robertson (.176) and the Braves’ Spencer Strider (.179) and AJ Minter (.182). But while bullpen excellence was the name of the game in previous postseasons, this year, bullpen depth may play a more significant role.
The addition of the best-of-three Wild Card Series meant the elimination of off-days between Games 4 and 5 of the Division Series, if necessary, as well as between Games 5 and 6 of the League Championship Series.
A week ago, it would have been easy to simply say, “Advantage, Braves.” But after going into the NL Wild Card Series against the Cardinals with two trusted relievers in José Alvarado and Zach Eflin, the Phillies emerged feeling better about their other options. This includes Seranthony Domínguez after he recorded pivotal strikeouts of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in the eighth inning of Philly’s clinching win in Game 2, and Robertson after he struck out a pair in a scoreless inning of Game 1 — his 34th career postseason appearance.
The Braves still have the edge after finishing this year’s regular season tied for second in bullpen fWAR (7.6) and third with a 27.3 percent strikeout rate despite losing Luke Jackson to Tommy John surgery and Will Smith to trade and seeing hard-worked righty Tyler Matzek struggle to repeat last year’s heroics. Three notable newcomers — closer Jansen, sensational Trade Deadline pickup Rasiel Iglesias and Spring Training signee Colin McHugh — are critical to Atlanta’s mix this year.
3. Which Bryce at The Battery?
Phillies slugger Bryce Harper has hit 12 home runs in 159 at-bats at Truist Park since the stadium opened in 2017, which translates to a homer every 13.25 at-bats. That’s his highest rate at any stadium in which he’s played at least 20 games.
But Harper finished the regular season quietly — he hit .227 with three homers, 17 RBIs and a .676 OPS in his final 35 regular-season games after returning from a broken left thumb — and he has been tamed at times by the Braves pitching. When the Phillies got swept here in a three-game series in September, Harper was 2-for-12 with one run scored and no RBIs. Compare that to a visit in May, then Harper was 9-for-19 with three doubles and a home run, and the teams split a four-game series. In another three-game set last September, Harper was 0-for-11 and the Phillies got swept.
He was 2-for-7 against the Cardinals including a go-ahead home run in Game 2 and provided the Phillies with a trait beyond his production: postseason experience. Players like Harper and Kyle Schwarber have been there before, but some of their teammates have not, as the Phillies play in the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Atlanta is playing in October for the fifth straight year.
“I can tell you that the first time I stepped on a field in St. Louis it wasn’t going in slow motion,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “It’s just the reality of the playoffs, right?”
4. The Strider factor
Arguably the most overpowering arm in this series belongs to 23-year-old mustachioed NL Rookie of the Year contender Strider, who signed a six-year, $75 million contract extension Monday on the eve of the NLDS. But, will he pitch? He missed the final two weeks of the regular season with an oblique strain.
The Braves sounded hopeful after Strider threw a bullpen session over the weekend.
“I feel good,” Strider said, “and hopefully it keeps trending in that direction.”
His availability will be clearer when the teams release their NLDS rosters on Tuesday morning.
“We’re still kind of mulling over what’s the right thing for us and him and how to use him,” Snitker said.