ATLANTA — The Phillies played the 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 flawless 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 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’ve been held to one run on three hits or worse.
“You kind of want to, after the last outing, show them, ‘Hey, you’re still going to be dealing with me,” he said. “The mental aspect, for them and for me, is just getting back on track. They know I’m 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 through 30 starts. He is slated to make two more in the regular season, both against the Mets. The last one could be a shortened start if the Phillies have the top wild-card spot at the time.
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, making the lead 4½ games with 12 to play. The Phillies’ magic number to win the top wild card spot is 9.
Rookie center Johan Rojas was the first on the visitors to go deep. He hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the second inning to give a lead that lasted the rest of the way. The first home run of his major league career came off a position player, so this was his first “real” one. He has been a big difference maker in the field and a spark plug that 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 give us confidence, but it builds chemistry in the clubhouse,” Rojas said. “Seranthony (Dominguez) joked with me a while ago and said, ‘You finally hit a homer off a real pitcher.’ It’s the little things, they’re really good for the group.
“Overall, I feel pretty good here in the big leagues. I give 100 percent, it’s always about the 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, 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 spot outside the plate that he took the other way.
Three batters after Castellanos homered, Kyle Schwarber hit by far the hardest of all, homering 483 feet to right field. It was the second-longest home run in Truist Park’s seven-year history, behind only a 495-footer by Ronald Acuña Jr.
“Hell, I would have 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 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 swinging the bats pretty well against everybody,” manager Rob Thomson said. “The really encouraging thing is we held their run down. Wheeler did a great job. That’s what you have to do.”
The Braves have won six straight division titles and celebrated their latest 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. 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 would have lost eight more games to the Braves than they have over that five-year span.
The Phillies aren’t scared of the Braves, the same way the Marlins aren’t scared of the Phils. They could find themselves back in Atlanta in three weeks because the Braves would be the NLDS opponent if the Phillies advanced past the wild-card round.
After dropping 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 set to win the series on Tuesday night. Cristopher Sanchez starts and is piggybacked by Michael Lorenzen. Ace Spencer Strider goes for Atlanta.
“When we match these guys up,” Schwarber said, “we always feel like it’s going to be a dogfight.”