PHILADELPHIA — Disbelief and déjà vu.

This week, the Atlanta Braves returned to the scene of the crime — Citizens Bank Park — intent on burying the past. In last year’s National League Division Series, the Philadelphia Phillies sent their division rivals on an early vacation, trouncing the 104-win Braves in a resounding four-game romp. It was as shocking as it was captivating; the cocky, energetic Phils ambushing a World Series favorite into a winter of regret.

On Thursday night, history repeated itself. The 2023 Braves, an even more motivated, focused and phenomenal assortment of baseball players, fell victim to the same beast in the NLDS. Atlanta’s offense, the best in baseball history by a number of metrics, froze in the spotlight, scored just eight runs in the series and went especially cold while losing 3-1 in the Game 4 clincher.

Determined to squash their demons, the Braves instead return home with even more. The Phillies, meanwhile, will stay right where they are as they prepare to host the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday in Game 1 of the NLCS.

Each of Philadelphia’s three solo home runs Thursday — a Nick Castellanos blast in the fourth, a Trea Turner shot in the fifth and another Castellanos drive in the sixth — sent Atlanta’s bench into shell shock. While the home crowd roared in rapture around them, a thunderstorm of red jubilation, the Braves hardly moved. Nobody slammed an iPad or dropped a head into hands; this was stunned silence, shock and awe.

Spencer Strider, Atlanta’s flamethrowing wizard who just posted the best strikeout rate in history for a starter, was good but not great. He struck out seven in 5.2 innings, his lone blemishes being the trio of solo shots. 

Ahead of the series, much was made about Strider’s return to Philadelphia, the site of his unfortunate downfall a year ago. In the 2022 NLDS, a diminished version of Strider fearlessly pitched through an oblique issue because, quite simply, the Braves needed him to. That injury limited the sharpness of his stuff, and a 94-mph center-cut fastball to Rhys Hoskins became the stuff of Philadelphia sports legend.

This time around, Strider was not the prevailing issue.

Phillies clinch NLDS over Braves behind two Nick Castellanos home runs

For whatever reason, be it small-sample-size randomness or the bright lights of October or the inhospitable environment at Citizens Bank Park, the Braves’ vaunted bats did not post. In Game 3, they were restricted to just two runs by an on-point Aaron Nola. And on Thursday, with their season on the brink, they scored half as many.

Besides a fourth inning Austin Riley solo shot, Atlanta couldn’t unlock Philadelphia starter Ranger Suárez, who delivered five strong frames in yet another magnificent October performance. A window opened with two outs in the seventh after José Alvarado walked Kevin Pillar and Orlando Arcia. That brought nine-time All-Star closer and late-inning tightrope artist Craig Kimbrel into the game. Kimbrel added to the difficulty level, walking Travis d’Arnaud on a full count to set up the defining moment of the series.

With two outs and the bases juiced down two runs, Ronald Acuña Jr., the presumptive NL MVP, swaggered to the dish.

All series long, the Phillies had succeeded in limiting Acuña. The game plan: a relentless dose of inside fastballs. Make him uncomfortable, get in under his hands with heat, and you have a chance to keep Acuña at bay. And with the count 2-2, Kimbrel challenged Acuña with a 95.8 mph heater on the inner edge of the strike zone.

Acuña swung. 

Thwack. Good contact. And then … silence.

Johan Rojas makes UNREAL catch at warning track off Ronald Acuña Jr.

After his miraculous catch to end Game 2, Braves center fielder Michael Harris II told FOX Sports that in key moments, during truly game-changing plays, it really does feel as if time slows down. But as Acuña’s smash floated toward deep left center, a stadium filled with 42,901 fans froze in time, holding its collective breath.

Had Kimbrel’s fastball caught just another half-inch of the plate, things might have been different — Acuña the hero; a series headed back to Atlanta for a Game 5. Instead, the ball fell harmlessly into the outstretched glove of a leaping Johan Rojas in center field, conjuring a sigh of relief from the home crowd.

Atlanta would force two runners on with no outs in the ninth, but the outcome was all but written and repeated. 

Baseball’s best team was done, its season for the ages, full of historic accomplishments, complete with the final goal left unrealized. There is pain in that, for the players, for the staff, for the fans, a sour taste that will not soon leave their mouths. And while these Braves will be back — they are too talented, too well built not to be — Thursday night was an anticlimactic farewell to an unforgettable ballclub.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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