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Nick Castellanos, Phillies conquer Spencer Strider again to head back to the NLCS

Nick Castellanos took Atlanta’s ace deep twice and Philly’s bullpen held on by a thread to send the Braves home and the Phillies through to the final four.

Nick Castellanos of the Philadelphia Phillies rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves during Game Four of the Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

In an NLDS that had just about everything over its first three games, the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies somehow saved their best — and most nerve-shredding — for last. Nick Castellanos took Spencer Strider deep twice and a Philly pitching staff that’s been lights out all October held on for dear life in the late innings, sealing a 3-1 win and a second straight trip to the NLCS for the reigning National League champs and sending MLB’s regular season kings home early.

It’s fitting that the Phillies punched their ticket to the next round the same way they got to this point: a whole lot of home runs and a whole lot of pitching. Ranger Suarez provided the latter early, adding to his impressive numbers against Atlanta with five more innings of one-run ball — the only blemish a solo homer from Austin Riley in the top of the fourth that opened the scoring.

Which prompted a little dugout sass from Ronald Acuna Jr., who had a message for the Philly fans behind him in what became an even more contentious matchup over the last couple of days.

The long-ball part of Philly’s equation took a little longer to arrive, but eventually the damn broke against Spencer Strider. Atlanta’s ace battled early, escaping jams with multiple runners on in each of the first three innings. But while Strider’s fastball was as explosive as ever, the Phillies were clearly sitting on his slider, and eventually his mistakes started winding up over the fence. Nick Castellanos put the home team on the board in the fourth, tying the game with a moonshot down the line in left similar to his first dinger in Game 3.

An inning later, it was Trea Turner’s turn, crushing another hanging breaking ball and putting the Phils on top. (The once-maligned shortstop went 4-for-4 on the night, etching his name into Philly sports lore.)

An inning after that, it was Castellanos again — demolishing a 99-mph Strider fastball down the pipe and becoming the first player in Major League history to notch consecutive multi-homer games in the postseason.

While the Phillies were chipping away at Strider, this Braves offense — arguably the best unit in modern baseball history during the regular season — was once again going AWOL in October. Two swings gave Atlanta four runs across the seventh and eighth innings of their wild Game 2 win; outside of that, however, the Braves notched a single run across the other 34 innings of this series, hardly able to even threaten Philly’s pitching staff all that much.

They did have two golden opportunities, though. The first came in the top of the seventh: Phillies lefty Jose Alvarado walked Kevin Pillar and Orlando Arcia, the seventh and eighth hitters in Atlanta’s order, causing Thomson to make an early call to closer Craig Kimbrel ... only for Kimbrel to promptly walk pinch-hitter Travis d’Arnaud. That set up one of the most nail-biting individual moments in recent postseason history: Kimbrel against presumptive NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., bases loaded, two outs, Braves down by two. Kimbrel began the at-bat in very shaky fashion, uncorking a wild pitch (that Pillar failed to score on) and going down 3-1 in the count. But the former Brave battled back to a full count, before Acuna Jr. lined a 96-mph fastball into the left-center gap. The ball hung in the air for what felt like years, holding the outcome of the game — and possibly the series — in the balance.

Center fielder Johan Rojas didn’t take the most confident route, but all that matters for Philly is that the ball wound up in his glove.

It felt like that would decide the game, but Atlanta wasn’t quite done yet. Burning Alvarado and Kimbrel early — while certainly justifiable given the matchups — meant that Philly’s bullpen plan got inverted, with Thomson trying to get through the final four outs with lefty Gregory Soto. Soto navigated the end of the eighth with ease, but Marcell Ozuna left off the ninth with a walk and Sean Murphy’s seeing-eye single put men on the corners with no one out. This was the chance for redemption, for the Braves’ powerhouse offense to finally come to the rescue. Alas, it wasn’t to be: Lefty Matt Strahm got two quick pop-ups from Kevin Pillar and Eddie Rosario, then struck out pinch-hitter Vaughn Grissom to put the final stake in Atlanta’s heart.

In the end, it was a fitting conclusion given just how poorly Atlanta’s bats performed throughout this series. Maybe it was the long layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of the Divisional round, maybe it was small sample size weirdness, maybe it was Philly’s pitching staff, maybe it was a combination of both; the simple fact is that the Braves went cold at precisely the wrong time, the way countless teams before them have, and it was always going to be hard for this Atlanta team — with all of its questions in the rotation — to overcome that.

For the Phillies, meanwhile, it was time to party at Citizens Bank Park. This is the third time in franchise history — a franchise history that spans over a century, mind you — in which the Phillies have reached the Championship Series in consecutive years. (They reached three in a row from 2008 to 2010 and from 1976 to 1978.) Looking back, it’s remarkable the way in which the 2023 team followed the same rhythms as the 2022 version, going through several rough patches during the summer before finding their way into the postseason and landing on a lethal short-series formula. Once again, a Phillies squad that got here the hard way has become a team that absolutely no one wants to face, with two aces at the top of the rotation — Aaron Nola is finally throwing well enough to have regained that moniker — an endless string of flamethrowing bullpen arms and six or seven guys who can go yard at any given moment. Oh, and they’ll get at least four more games at the league’s most raucous home park, starting on Monday night in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Arizona Diamondbacks.