June 21, 2024

PHILADELPHIA — Over the past two years, Phillies-Braves has transformed into one of baseball’s best rivalries, in the vein of Yankees-Red Sox, Giants-Dodgers, or Cardinals-Cubs.

One thing it did not yet have is a signature moment. That changed Wednesday night in Philadelphia, in the second edition of what could be an annual National League Division Series occurrence.

After word got out of postgame comments by Atlanta Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia laughing at Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper for making the last out of Game 2 in Atlanta, their series resumed at Citizens Bank Park for Game 3. Harper responded to the barbs by hitting two long home runs, staring down Arcia as he rounded the bases both times and fanning the flames of this postseason’s hottest matchup.

With star power on both sides, two passionate fan bases providing raucous backdrops — and even the mascots getting into the mix — there is no shortage of entertainment, even before you mix in the potential for bulletin board material.

“They’re obviously a tough squad,” said Phillies starter Aaron Nola, who captured the Game 3 win. “They won the division six years in a row. And it’s pretty cool to match up with them again in the NLDS for the second year in a row. Just got two really good clubs going against each other.

“I feel like we want to face really good competition. I mean, everybody’s good competition this time of year, but the Braves are exceptionally good, and we know that. I feel like we usually play them pretty good — and it’s always a fun series.”

If we’ve learned anything from watching these two teams go toe-to-toe for two consecutive postseasons, it’s that this rivalry gets even better with each new matchup. It started last year, when the 87-win Phillies beat the 101-win Braves 3-1 in a division series that made headlines for Rhys Hoskins’ bat spike following a crucial three-run homer in Game 3. This year, it intensified with a comeback for the ages in Game 2, featuring a game-saving catch by Michael Harris II that led to Harper getting doubled off on first (and set up Arcia’s postgame comments). On Wednesday night, it was the Phillies’ turn to make a statement, when Harper’s long balls — and subsequent stare-downs of Arcia — showed the growing animosity.

When asked after Game 2 how he’d rate the rivalry on a scale of one to 10, Phillies manager Rob Thomson didn’t let coming up shortof the thrilling finish damper his enthusiasm.

“Today, it’s 10,” he answered with a smile.

And it doesn’t seem likely to fall any time soon — especially not if we keep getting these kinds of postseason matchups. In the past two years, the Braves have proven that they own the regular season, but the Phillies are built for October — and clearly have no intent of backing down in the postseason, no matter how many games behind Atlanta they finish in the NL East standings.

“That happens with any two good teams in the same division,” Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “You saw it with the Dodgers-Padres series last year. I noticed that. L.A. was always the big brother but now that San Diego is a good team, they have a rivalry. In Philly, we have that with Atlanta.”

No matter how this edition ends — the Phillies hope to close things out in Game 4 tonight — both teams are built to keep adding chapters to this rivalry for years to come. Harper, Trea Turner, Nick Castellanos, Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott are among the players who will still be on the Phillies through at least 2026 — and in Harper and Turner’s cases, much longer — while the Braves have more talent locked up than any team in baseball, including Ronald Acuna Jr., Harris, Matt Olson and Spencer Strider all through at least 2027.

“Look at the guys they have signed long term and the guys we have signed long term,” Braves reliever Brad Hand said. “They’re going to be meeting up a lot over the next 5-6 years. They’re going to see each other a lot.”

Hand has seen both sides of the rivalry, playing for the Phillies as recently as last season before joining the Braves in a summer trade this year. He admits that even though the rivalry is growing overall, there is another element added when it shifts to the one-of-a-kind environment of Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies greeted the Braves with a 10-2 thumping in Game 3.

“It’s a fun place to play in the postseason,” Hand said. “The fans are right on top of you in the bullpen. They get on you. It’s just Philadelphia. It’s how people are here.”

Acuna Jr. agreed, adding that the intensity in Philadelphia has forced him to raise his game. “I like it,” he said. “It’s a fun place to play. I feel like I can really focus there. I feel like the fans are really engaged and into it — and I feel like they boo me every time that I go up, but I feel like that helps. It helps me focus more.”

Several players commented that, despite playing in hostile environments during the most pressure-packed time of the year, the rivalry has been built out of mutual respect (though the growing Arcia-Harper feud could change that).

After coming back to face the team he came up with in this division series, Philadelphia outfielder Cristian Pache was surprised at the warm reception he received in Atlanta and called it “so much fun” to play against his old team.

“It was very unexpected to see the amount of love they showed me in Atlanta [in Games 1 and 2],” Pache said through his interpreter. “It was very special. Even though I didn’t do much for them. In Philadelphia, it’s incredible how much energy they bring to the game. They create a very hostile environment for the opponent. It’s an incredible atmosphere for everyone.”

Whether the series ends in a rocking Citizens Bank Park or heads back to Truist Park in Atlanta, this was the series everyone circled going into the postseason — and it has delivered, with two powerhouses trading punches in baseball’s next big rivalry. Or, as Hand put it:

“Two heavyweights going at it.”

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