Phillies wield 10-game lead over Braves with triumphs big and small

ATLANTA — Almost nine months had passed since they last stepped into this building, and it’s like that night never happened to the Phillies. Nick Castellanos barely missed a dramatic home run and, instead, it was a game-ending double play. Atta boy became part of this rivalry’s lexicon.

But the Phillies have been the better team for 270 days now. So, when the two met again Friday night at Truist Park, it was almost unsettling. For the first time in years, these games mean more to the Braves than they do to the Phillies. That is what a commanding divisional lead in July does. It puts legitimate pressure on the chasing team to salvage something.

So, an 8-6 Phillies win was not the most crucial of the season. Not even close. But it boosted the gap between these two teams to 10 games. It guarantees the Phillies will leave here Sunday with at least an eight-game advantage.

And, for three hours, the Phillies reminded everyone why they are 10 games better than the franchise that has captured six straight National League East titles.

“We did a lot of little things well,” Rob Thomson said, “and they turned into big things.”

This was a cornerstone of previous Braves teams. Whenever the Phillies cracked the door open, Atlanta pounced. There was no room for mistakes.

This is how opponents perceive the Phillies in 2024. There are big things — Trea Turner homered two more times and is on one of his power binges at an opportune time — but the small things are magnified. The Phillies are adept at the small things. Especially when the Phillies keep winning without Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto.

The Phillies have an ideal formula — stellar starting pitching and timely hitting. They are built on that. But Friday marked the 33rd time in the last three seasons the Phillies allowed at least three homers in a game — and only the fifth time they won such a game.

Meanwhile, the Braves have lost 28 consecutive games in which their opponent scores four or more runs. Their margin is thinner. The Phillies can succeed with more than one style.

“That’s what makes a good team,” said Aaron Nola, who won his 100th career game. “That’s what makes us good. We have guys who, when our studs go down, come up and get the job done. That’s what makes a really good team.”

They are still shuffling through players to determine the optimal mix. Schwarber, barring anything unexpected, will return Tuesday. Harper, who could test his sore hamstring by running the bases sometime this weekend, is not too far behind. Realmuto is targeting July 19 — the first game after the All-Star break — for his return.

They are missing the power supplied by those three. Turner has elevated his play with 11 hits in the last five games. He has two two-homer games on this road trip.

He is hitting .340 since Aug. 5, 2023 — the day Phillies fans bumped him with a standing ovation. That is the best batting average in the majors during that span.

“Obviously, when you’re hitting .230, you try to make it all up in one day, which is tough,” Turner said. “When you’re hitting .330, it’s a little easier. So, mentally, I’m sure it’s easier to put bad games behind me at this point as opposed to last year. To me, I just feel like my swing’s in a way better spot.

“My decision-making and my ability to adjust has been a lot better this year than last. For my career, that’s more typical — being able to make adjustments. I’m going to struggle here or there. But I am making the adjustment faster.”

The Phillies wanted their young center fielder, Johan Rojas, to adjust faster. It’s why they demoted him to Triple A last month. He returned sooner than expected when injuries hit the Phillies, but team officials were encouraged by Rojas’ attitude while in the minors. He understood the plan. He embraced it.

In Friday’s win, he had two infield hits. He scored both times he was on base. He forced Braves pitcher Jesse Chavez into a mistake with an errant throw. He stole third base, which prompted another Braves error, and trotted home.

Rojas made the little things big.

“That’s important,” he said through a team interpreter. “I understand that. And I know that that’s my game. That’s my type of game. I have to use my legs to get the best version of myself. And I do know that small things become big things once you get going.”

Rojas tried a small thing in the second inning that did not lead to a run. He saw runners on the corners with one out in a scoreless game. The Phillies did not call for the safety squeeze. Rojas did it on his own.

Braves first baseman Matt Olson had to make a perfect play to cut down the runner at home. He did.

“That was all me doing that bunt,” Rojas said. “In my mind, I wanted to bunt that ball. And I laid down a good bunt. I mean, he made a great play on that.”

“It was the right place,” Thomson said.

This is all the Phillies are asking of Rojas: Create havoc. He is here to make the plays in center field, but nights like Friday reinforce how Rojas can be a part of this. The Phillies have a 10-game lead to prove how much the small things matter.

They know what they mean in October.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be back here,” Rojas said. “Since I came back, I feel that is the best feeling — to help the team win. That will always be the best feeling. It doesn’t matter how. As long as I’m helping this team win, that’s what I care about.”

(Photo of Johan Rojas: Brett Davis / USA Today)

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