ATLANTA — A bold decision by Nick Castellanos, a big hit by Bryson Stott and a clutch 10th inning from Matt Strahm against the top of the best lineup in baseball led the Phillies Wednesday to a 6-5, extra-inning win, one of their best of the season.
The Phils held a two-run lead entering the bottom of the eighth but it was blown by Jeff Hoffman and Gregory Soto. Craig Kimbrel had the bottom of the ninth in a tie game and quickly found himself with little breathing room. The Braves had the tying run on third base with one out after pinch-runner Luke Williams swiped two bags.
It was then that Orlando Arcia lofted a ball to medium-deep right field in foul territory. Castellanos chased it, settled under it, and as probably every Phillies fan watching at home was yelling, "Drop it!" Castellanos caught the ball and fired a perfect strike to nail Williams at the plate and send the game into extra innings. He could have let it drop harmlessly, and if Williams scored, Castellanos' decision is all anyone would be talking about from the game. But it worked in the Phils' favor.
"I don't know, I thought I was going to drop it and at the last second, a voice popped in my head and said catch it and throw him out," Castellanos said. "Usually he just pops up when I'm hitting, like, 'Don't take this 2-0 pitch.' And then he decided to show up right there in the ninth running after that ball."
Catcher Garrett Stubbs said he was screaming at the top of his lungs for Castellanos to drop it. Manager Rob Thomson said as the ball went up in the air, he, too, was hoping Castellanos would drop it.
"He made a heck of a play, I don't want to take anything from it, but it's not really a sure throw from that distance," Thomson said. "But he made a heck of a play. Thank god he did."
Trea Turner grounded into a double play in the 10th and it looked like the Phillies were headed for another scoreless inning in extras, where they'd failed to plate a run in three of their last seven tries with the auto-runner at second base. Then, Bryce Harper worked a walk, Alec Bohm was intentionally walked to load the bases and Stott hit the game-winning two-run double down the third base line.
The Phillies won the series to end their road trip on a high note. They went 4-2 in St. Louis and Atlanta after losing five of seven games to the Marlins and Braves on last week's homestand.
"It was huge," Thomson said of the series finale. "Craig did a great job getting out of that ninth inning and then we just kept fighting."
The Braves won the season series, 8-5, but three of the Phillies' losses were in extra innings and another was a game they let slip away in the bottom of the eighth. They've played Atlanta close and aren't intimidated by a lineup that has posted historic power numbers in 2023.
"You know how you stack up against somebody," Stott said. "One swing kind of determines each game, it feels like. We want it to be our swing."
At 83-69, the Phils lead the Diamondbacks for the top wild-card spot by 2½ — 3½ because they own the tiebreaker — with 10 left to play. They begin a seven-game homestand Thursday with four against the Mets and three vs. the Pirates before ending the season at Citi Field.
Their magic number is 7 over the D-backs, Cubs and Marlins, leaving the Phils a good chance to clinch the 4-seed — which comes with home-field advantage in the wild-card round — in front of their own fans at Citizens Bank Park over the next week.
They were four outs from a drama-free end to the series. Hoffman entered up two in the bottom of the eighth and struck out Ronald Acuña Jr. to begin the inning before allowing a double to Ozzie Albies and an RBI single to Austin Riley after beginning the count 0-2. Thomson went to the lefty Soto to face Matt Olson, who grounded out, but Marcell Ozuna followed with a game-tying double off the top of the wall in right field.
Hoffman had been nearly untouchable for the past five weeks. Entering Wednesday's series finale, he had allowed one run in his previous 16⅔ innings with 23 strikeouts, four walks and a .091 opponents' batting average.
"It's just all familiarity and the fact that we've been there before," Castellanos said of all the late-inning lead changes the Phillies have dealt with this season. "All that stuff doesn't hurt. You don't want to have smooth sailing and win every game 10-0 and the first time you face adversity is in postseason baseball."
The Phillies built a four-run lead through four innings thanks to a two-out RBI single in the first inning from Bohm and two home runs from Castellanos, Nos. 26 and 27. The first was a 432-footer to center, the second an opposite-field shot to right-center.
Castellanos has 99 RBI, two shy of his career-high set in 2017 with Detroit. He has five home runs in his last eight games and is hitting .311 with seven extra-base hits and 14 RBI in 12 games since being moved to the bottom third of the order. This will likely invite questions about moving him back up in the lineup, but why mess with what's working?
“I like him down there because it gives you some more thump at the bottom of the lineup,” Thomson said. “And like I said to him when I did it, he’s gonna have plenty of opportunities to drive people in because the guys in front of him — whether it’s J.T. (Realmuto), (Brandon) Marsh, whomever — they’re going to get on base.”
Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber are tied for the team lead with 99 RBI and Bohm has 92. Bohm has been a force with runners in scoring position this season, and really, throughout his four-year big-league career. He's hit .354 in those spots in 2023 (10th in MLB) and .318 lifetime.
Aaron Nola started for the Phillies and had a strong bounce-back performance after pitching fewer than five innings in three straight starts, matching the longest stretch of his career. He responded with six innings of two-run ball, striking out eight with 18 swinging strikes on 94 pitches. The last time out, he generated a season-worst five swinging strikes on 97 pitches.
Nola's afternoon began with three consecutive 1-2-3 innings, and while he did encounter trouble in the fourth, he was able to minimize damage. That frame began with back-to-back singles from Acuña and Albies atop the order, and Olson drove in a run with a one-out single. Things could have been worse if not for Nola's strikeouts of Riley swinging at a curveball below the zone and Eddie Rosario looking at a two-seamer that came back over the inside corner.
Nola is 12-9 with a 4.57 ERA through 31 starts. He is 13 innings shy of reaching 200 for the fourth time in the last five non-COVID-shortened seasons but probably won't get there because he lines up to start Game 162, which will more likely than not be meaningless for the Phillies.
"Classic Nola," Castellanos said of Wednesday's outing. "Competing, throwing strikes, giving us a chance to win."