ATLANTA — After sprinting toward the sinking fly ball, extending his glove, and making the sliding catch in the ninth inning Tuesday that saved Game 1 of this National League Division Series, Nick Castellanos raised both arms and lay flat on his back for a few seconds. .
And then, honest to goodness, he smiled.
OK, so maybe it was more of a tight-lipped smirk. But there was no denying the Phillies right fielder looked happy. Or maybe satisfied. At least, he was relieved.
“All the above,” Castellanos said later, after the Phillies held on for a 7-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves. “Just looking [up] like, thank God I caught that ball. Obviously a big point in the game right there, so to be able to catch that and have two outs and nobody on base, I mean, it was huge.
“Baseball is really, really fun right now.”
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Indeed, the good times are really rolling for the Phillies. How could things be better?
Think about it: Not only did they punch first against the Braves, knocking out tough lefty Max Fried in the fourth inning and holding on after Zach Eflin allowed a three-run homer to Matt Olson in the ninth, but they will send ace Zack Wheeler to the mound Wednesday with a chance to take a commanding lead in the best-of-five divisional round.
If ever any team could say it has the 101-win, defending World Series champion Braves right where it wants it, well, the Phillies might as well go ahead and say it, not that they’re about to get cocky or tempt fate.
“We’re super confident, but that’s a great team over there,” Bryce Harper said. “We’ve just got to stay on them, keep going, understand if we go home 2-0 it’s a big advantage for us.”
After scoring a total of eight runs in the two-game wild-card series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Phillies needed the offense to deliver against Fried.
For a change, it ran through Castellanos.
Castellanos inside-outed a first-pitch fastball to right field for the third of four consecutive two-out singles in a two-run first inning. He banged a double off the right-field wall and scored a run in the third. In the fourth, he stroked a two-run single to right field to open a 6-1 lead and hush the sellout crowd of 42,641 at Truist Park.
Just as the Phillies imagined when they signed him to a five-year, $100 million contract in spring training.
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“Outstanding,” said manager Rob Thomson, who elected to replace left fielder Kyle Schwarber for defense in the late innings but not Castellanos. “I hope that’s the beginning of something. Because he’s been out for a long time and maybe he’s really getting his timing back now.”
Castellanos missed most of September because of a muscle strain in his right side. But even before that, he didn’t produce his usual extra-base power. He finished the regular season with 13 homers, his lowest output since 2014, and a career-worst .694 on-base plus slugging percentage.
According to people close to Castellanos, he heaped extra pressure on himself. In July, personal hitting coach Matt Martin said the 30-year-old “thinks he’s letting [president of baseball operations] Dave Dombrowski down, the owner down, his teammates down, the fans down, everybody down.”
But all it takes to change the narrative is a signature postseason moment or two. After going 0-for-7 against the Cardinals, Castellanos finally began rewriting his Phillies story.
“It’s kind of just a fresh start, a clean slate, so to speak,” Castellanos said. “And obviously these games are really intense. It’s just a lot of fun.”
There were tense moments in Game 1. Ranger Suárez loaded the bases in the first and third innings but Houdini’d his way out without allowing a run. He threw 86 pitches in 3⅓ innings, and forced the Phillies to turn to the underbelly of the bullpen — Andrew Bellatti, Connor Brogdon, and Brad Hand — before Seranthony Domínguez mowed through the Braves in the sixth and seventh.
But even the most fatalistic Phillies fan couldn’t have worried too much until Olson drove a hanging Eflin sinker out to center field.
Imagine if William Contreras’ fly ball fell in front of Castellanos.
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Eflin knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Please catch it,” he said. “That was probably the only thing on my mind. I went up and hugged him [after the game] and said, ‘Nice catch, dude.’ Really got the momentum back for us. It was huge.”
Said first baseman Rhys Hoskins: “I was screaming at him, ‘Come on, come on, stay up.’ You could feel the momentum. Obviously they had it after the homer. To get the next guy out is huge for Ef, but just huge for the rest of us, too.”
And now, the Phillies can ride a tsunami of momentum into Game 2. They will hand the ball to Wheeler, who was born a few miles from this sparkling ballpark in Cobb County, Ga., and grew up about an hour away. He was nearly drafted by the Braves in 2009 and made his major league debut against them in 2013.
But here’s the part that should put a lump in the champs’ throats: Wheeler has a 2.04 ERA in 10 starts against his hometown team since joining the Phillies in 2020.
“I feel like I’ve been playing against these guys forever,” Wheeler said. “It’s kind of cool coming back home every once in a while and playing against these guys. They’ve got a really good team. It’s always a good test when you come here, hop on the mound. I’m looking forward to it.”
Just the thought could bring a smile to even Castellanos’ face.
“The air is different [in the playoffs]he said. “The atmosphere is different. And those are all things that I really enjoy.”
If you’re the Phillies, what’s not to enjoy?