ATLANTA — Perhaps you’d think it audacious for a kid to imagine making a spectacular play like the one that Michael Harris II made to end the Atlanta Braves’ electrifying 5-4 comeback win against the Phillies in Game 2 of the NLDS. But Harris isn’t typical. And when he saw one of his boyhood idols, Andruw Jones, in the stands Monday, Harris wanted to do something special.
He got the chance and made the most of it, and the result was one of the more improbable, riveting Braves postseason wins in recent memory. It was fueled by two-run homers by Travis d’Arnaud in the seventh inning and Austin Riley in the eighth, but the giant exclamation mark came from Harris, the 22-year-old center fielder from Stockbridge High School just outside Atlanta.
“Yeah, that was crazy,” Harris said of the spectacular game-ending double play that featured a leaping catch before crashing into the wall, and then a quick throw that led to Bryce Harper being doubled off first base to send the largest crowd in Truist Park history into a joyous frenzy. “That was wild. After I saw the out at first, I blacked out and was running in the outfield screaming.”
The next thing he remembers, Harris said, was celebrating and dancing with teammates at second base, where a bunch of them converged after Riley had scooped up Harris’ throw to second base and fired a strike to first baseman Matt Olson, who received it a half-step before Harper could get back to the base.
A.J. Minter on #Braves‘ win: “Nothing but heart and nuts. This was a must-win situation. Now we have to go back to Philly and hopefully win 2, or just even it up and take it back here to Game 5. It changes all the momentum. Momentum is on our side, and we’re feeling pretty good.”
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) October 10, 2023
“Every playoff win is exciting,” said d’Arnaud, who caught every game in the Braves’ 2021 postseason that ended with a World Series title. “I think the way it ended was one of the most exciting endings to a game I’ve ever seen as far as a defensive standpoint. We got Money Mike making a crazy catch on the wall and us doubling up Harper to close it out. It was really emotional, especially the way we came back. So it was one of my favorite postseason games ever.”
Here’s how The Play went down: With one out and Harper on first base representing the potential tying run after a leadoff walk in the ninth, closer Raisel Iglesias replaced A.J. Minter to face Nick Castellanos.
Castellanos lined a fly ball to center with 100 mph exit velocity and it looked initially like it had a chance to be a two-run homer. But the speedy Harris ranged back to his left, timed his leap perfectly and made the catch with right arm and glove extended overhead before crashing into a padded column on the fence in front of the Braves bullpen.
The left-handed Harris had that arm out to try to protect himself as he slammed into the wall in mid-air. He came down on both feet, and immediately took a step toward second base and, not knowing where Harper was in all of the excitement, fired a one-hop throw that got past Ozzie Albies on the infield dirt near second base.
Harper, not thinking Harris was going to make the catch, didn’t wait to tag, and also went so far — all the way past second base — that the Phillies slugger had to go back to touch second base and try to sprint back to first. Harper slipped when he changed directions in his scramble to retreat.
“Usually you don’t pass (second) base,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said of Harper’s mistake. “You stay in front of it, make sure it’s not caught. But he thought the ball was clearly over his head, didn’t think he was going to catch it. And Harris made a heck of a play. Unbelievable.”
When Harris made the catch, Riley raced toward second base, not expecting to be part of the play, just shouting for Harris to throw to first base.
“I was screaming ‘One! One! One!’ and my momentum just kept taking me that way,” Riley said. “And it ended up being just the right spot at the right time. I was screaming as loud as I could and just trying to see where the ball was going.”
Harris’ throw skipped past Albies and went directly to Riley about 25 feet behind him, and the third baseman scooped it up and fired to Olson, with Harper frantically scrambling to get back. Game over. Series tied 1-1.
Given the circumstances, Harris was asked where that ranked among the best plays of his career.
“Situation-wise, yeah, I would say first,” he said, smiling. “Against a tough team, it was a good swing, situation with a guy on first, and that could have tied the game there if it gets down. So, I feel like with the situation it was my top play.”
Harris grew up 20 minutes south of Turner Field, where the 10-time Gold Glove winner Jones used to roam center and make plays like the one Harris made, plays that should help Jones get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame within the next two or three years. And there was Jones, seated near home plate Monday night.
Jones has worked as a Braves consultant and followed Harris’ career since the Braves drafted him out of Stockbridge High. He’s had conversations with Harris from time to time, helping out when he can. Jones has said more than once how proud he is of Harris. Monday, the kid made a play great enough that it might’ve made Jones’ extensive highlight reel if he’d made it.
“Just one of those things you dream of being a Braves fan, trying to be big in those moments,” Harris said, “I don’t know, just being able to watch some of the center fielders that played for this team, like Andruw … He’s made a lot of big-time plays, so I guess just trying to follow in his footsteps and try to be great like him.”
Big bats awaken
Considering the staggering heights that his hitters reached this season, and how they fared recently against Phillies ace Zack Wheeler, whom the Braves knocked around for six runs less than a month ago when they hit three homers against him — the first time since 2021 that anyone did that to Wheeler — Atlanta hitting coach Kevin Seitzer was asked hours before Game 2 if he felt good about the team’s chances.
“Yeah, I mean, we’ve got a dynamic group of hitters, bottom line, and we’re gonna roll with that,” said Seitzer, whose charges managed just five singles in a 3-0 loss in Game 1, after tying a major-league record with 307 homers during the season and becoming the first team to slug .500 in a full season. “That’s the way I look at it. We’re gonna do what we’ve been doing all year, we’re going to get after it, see what happens.”
What happened was the sort of thing that happened throughout the Braves’ 104-win season. After being dominated for five innings by Wheeler, who didn’t give up a hit or walk while striking out eight in that span, the Braves scratched out a run in the sixth. Ronald Acuña Jr. drew a two-out walk and scored on an Albies single coupled with an error charged to shortstop Trea Turner on a bounced throw from right fielder Castellanos.
It was an awareness play by Acuña, who never stopped completely at third and raced home when he saw the throw get away from Turner for a moment.
“Anytime you get Ronald on base, he’s a threat,” Riley said “He’s pushing his chances. And he’s in scoring position a lot. I think that just set it right there. Ozzie getting the hit right there and then just kept it rolling and Travy with the big homer.”
D’Arnaud, seated next to Riley in the postgame media session, chimed in, “Then Riles with the big homer. But Ronnie got the crowd back in it. I think that was the biggest thing. Got the crowd back in it and got momentum back on our side.”
Olson had a leadoff single against Wheeler in the seventh and one out later d’Arnaud homered on a first-pitch slider from Wheeler, his former Mets batterymate. That ended Wheeler’s night and got the crowd of 43,898 rocking. One inning later, Acuña was hit by a pitch with one out and stole second before Riley gave the Braves their first lead in the series with his two-out homer off Jeff Hoffman.
“Nothing but heart and nuts,” Minter said of the Braves’ stirring comeback. “This was a must-win situation. Now we have to go back to Philly and hopefully win two, or just even it up and take it back here to Game 5. It just changes all the momentum. All the momentum is on our side, and we’re feeling pretty good.”
(Photo of Michael Harris II: Brett Davis/USA Today)