Braves win NL East again; clinch latest title with victory in Philadelphia

AP photo by Matt Slocum / Atlanta Braves players and coaches celebrate after beating the host Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 on Wednesday night to clinch their sixth consecutive NL East Division title.

PHILADELPHIA — Crammed into the visitors' clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, the Atlanta Braves puffed on their championship cigars, showered each other with bubbly, shotgunned beers and danced in puddles of alcohol — until the music briefly paused Wednesday night.

"Turn the music up! Some people want to party!" relief pitcher Kirby Yates shouted.

On his command, the music was cranked to max volume and the newly crowned National League East champions — their latest crown anyway — resumed their celebration. Yates was the one who closed it out, so he got to call the shots in the locker room.

As he surveyed the jubilation around him and ran his fingers through hair matted by booze, Yates knew there was nowhere else he wanted to be.

"So far," the 36-year-old right-hander said, "it's the best part about being a baseball player."

It's just what the Braves do this time of year.

Atlanta clinched its sixth straight NL East title, beating the second-place Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 on Wednesday night behind right-hander Spencer Strider's MLB-leading 17th win on the mound and Austin Riley's two-run homer.

"Now the real party starts," Strider said.

Yates struck out Brandon Marsh to end the game, and the visiting players danced in a mob near the mound as Phillies fans booed them off the field. "Congratulations Atlanta Braves 2023 NL East Champions" flashed on the scoreboard.

Braves star right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., an NL MVP contender, responded to booing fans by raising both arms and signaling with his hands to bring it on.

"We've checked one box," manager Brian Snitker said.

Atlanta (96-50) clinched in 146 games, its second-quickest clinch in the divisional era. The division title was the Braves' MLB record-extending 26th, two more than the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

The club was already bound for the postseason, having clinched at worst a wild card three days earlier to become the first team with a berth in Major League Baseball's 2023 playoffs, but even on Sunday, Snitker called the division title the first goal the team set in spring training.

The Braves have seemingly made winning the East a rite of September since the 1990s, and this year's team looks loaded enough to win its third World Series championship since moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. Over that span, Atlanta won 11 straight NL East titles from 1995 to 2005 and the World Series in 1995 and 2021.

Yates, in his second season with the Braves, earned his fifth save of 2023.

Atlanta took special satisfaction in clinching the latest East title on the same Citizens Bank Park field where the Phillies eliminated them last October in an NL Division Series. The Phillies won that best-of-five series 3-1, the same measure by which Atlanta won this four-game set.

The Phillies (79-67) lead the NL wild-card standings, and the teams could face each other in October.

For now, though, September belongs to the Braves.

"Did we want it to be on our field? No," Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber said. "But they're going to have to do it somewhere. The focus is on us, still. We're going to keep pushing until the very end."

Riley, one of many big boppers in the majors' most productive lineup, gave the Braves all the runs they needed when he connected off Cristopher Sánchez (2-4) in the first inning for his 35th home run of the season.

"I try not to think of moments like that," Riley said. "You just try and go up there and have a good at-bat. I've put a lot of pressure on myself this year to perform in those moments. I was able to put a good swing on there."

Riley became the third Braves player this season to reach 35 homers, joining Matt Olson (51) and Acuña (37). The Braves are tied for most players with 35 homers in a season on one team in MLB history.

Riley had a sacrifice fly in the third and Kevin Pillar added an RBI double in the fourth for a 4-1 lead.

Sanchez struck out a career-best 10 batters in 7 1/3 innings, but the Phillies have still lost five of seven.

"We'll bounce back," manager Rob Thomson said. "This group has been resilient all year."

Strider (17-5) took it from there and won for the fifth time in six starts, allowing one run and four hits in seven innings. He struck out nine batters to boost his MLB-best total to 259. He also gave the bullpen some needed rest after a challenging first three games in Philly that included close Raisel Iglesias surrendering tying homers in the ninth inning in two of them.

That the Braves had the mettle to rebound from the crushing blows and win on the road is just one more reason why they just might be the team to beat in the postseason.

"Let's get ready for October," Strider said.

Meanwhile, Thomson said it would be a "pleasant surprise" if injured first baseman Rhys Hoskins is able to return in the postseason. Hoskins has tried to remain optimistic that he could play after he tearing his left ACL in spring training. He has a $12 million, one-year contract and may have played his last game with Philadelphia.

Hoskins will continue to hit off a tee in St. Louis, where the Phillies begin a three-game series against the Cardinals on Friday. Hoskins hit 30 homers with 79 RBIs last season for the NL champions.

Like the Phillies, the Braves are off Thursday. They're headed to Florida for a three-game set with the third-place Miami Marlins, who won two of three against Philadelphia last weekend. The Braves are set to start right-hander Bryce Elder (12-4, 3.38 ERA) in Friday's opener, while the Marlins had not named their starting pitcher for the opener as of Wednesday evening.