For three games, the Phillies presented the very best version of themselves. Best lineup, free from injuries. Three best starting pitchers, one lined up after the last. Best and, thanks to the customary day off after opening day, most rested bullpen.
And their best, it turns out, can go toe-to-toe with the best team in the National League East three years running.
As opening statements go, this was fairly persuasive. With another clutch hit from Alec Bohm and another pitching gem (this time by Zach Eflin), the Phillies completed a three-game, season-opening sweep of the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, on a sun-splashed Easter Sunday before an announced crowd of 10,773 -- the largest of the season yet, per the city’s loosened regulations for outdoor events -- at Citizens Bank Park.
“I think we kind of proved to ourselves that any given night we can go out there and win a game,” said Bohm, who drove in the go-ahead run with a single in the eighth inning against Braves reliever Chris Martin. “We’re never really out of it. And our bullpen’s for real.”
OK, so it’s three games -- 1.85% of the season. No sense getting too carried away. In 2019, after all, the Phillies opened the season by brooming the Braves in a three-game series by a combined score of 23-11 and wound up finishing 16 games behind them in the standings.
But those first three games were a mismatch two years ago. The Braves had injuries in their rotation, leaving the Phillies to beat up on Julio Teheran, Bryse Wilson, and Kyle Wright. This time around, they scored just enough runs to defeat the Braves’ top three starters (Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Ian Anderson) and a bullpen that doesn’t look nearly as formidable as it was last year.
More significantly, consider what the Phillies’ pitching did to Atlanta’s mighty offense.
The Braves scored in two of 28 innings in the series. Their top four hitters -- Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna -- went 2-for-44 with one extra-base hit and 14 strikeouts. The Phillies used their seven best pitchers -- starters Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Eflin; relievers Hector Neris, Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, and Connor Brogdon -- and they held the Braves to 12 hits, three runs, and five walks, while piling up 35 strikeouts.
“To limit this team to as few runs as we did is really not easy to do,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Again, I’m going to say it: That’s an explosive lineup, and it’s extremely dangerous. Our guys executed pitches. Really pleased.”
Indeed, it couldn’t get much better. If not for two swings -- Pablo Sandoval’s pinch-hit two-run homer against Nola on opening day and Travis d’Arnaud’s cut on a first-pitch curveball from Eflin -- the Braves wouldn’t have scored any runs.
But it also didn’t come as a surprise, at least to the Phillies. While questions persist about their pitching depth, there wasn’t much doubt about Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin, especially from within the organization. The Phillies have openly said they will put their best three starters up against any rotation in the division. It gives them confidence going into at least 60% of their games.
“That’s a good lineup, but I don’t really think any of us are surprised by the starts that we got from those three guys,” said catcher Andrew Knapp, who staked Eflin to a 1-0 lead by hitting a solo homer off his own headshot on the scoreboard on the facade of the second deck in right field. “It’s kind of how we planned it.”
Eflin didn’t plan on a 23-pitch first inning in which he allowed only a two-out walk to Freeman. But he survived the Braves’ initial attempt to wage long at-bats and settled in for seven innings. He allowed four hits and one walk, struck out eight, and retired 13 of his last 15 batters. If not for the pitch to d’Arnaud, it would’ve been an almost mirror-image follow-up to Wheeler’s seven scoreless innings Saturday.
“That’s the way I look at it. I always try to top the guy that pitches before me, just use it as motivation to continue the streak of good pitching,” Eflin said. “It’s really nice to see the first two guys, go out there, get the job done with confidence. To follow that lead is crucial for me.”
The Phillies, meanwhile, made Anderson throw 70 pitches through three innings. But for as hard as he worked, he allowed only two balls out of the infield: a two-out single by Bohm in the first inning and Knapp’s homer. Anderson breezed through the fourth and fifth innings, then turned the game over to the Braves’ cavalcade of lefty relievers.
It wasn’t until right-hander Martin entered in the eighth that the Phillies’ offense stirred again. Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper notched back-to-back one-out singles before Bohm added to what has become his signature in his brief major-league career: Big hits with runners on base.
Bohm took a called strike, fouled off a 1-1 pitch, then waited jumped on a hanging slider and stroked it into center field for a 2-1 lead that Neris safeguarded in the ninth inning despite issuing back-to-back two-out walks.
“I know they’re trying to do something to get a ground ball there, so I’m expecting everything down in the zone,” Bohm said. “Didn’t panic once I got to two strikes. Knew he still had to throw the ball over the plate. He happened to make a mistake, and it worked out for the best.”
Just like everything else for the Phillies in the first three games.