THE TEMPTATION in these April games is to zoom out a little too much. After a winter without baseball and a month of the Grapefruit League, you can't help but bury yourselves neck-deep in the entrails of each game in a desperate search for some kind of deeper understanding.
Who are the Braves? Who are the Phillies? What does all of this mean?
Oftentimes, it means nothing. Take last night, when the Braves and Phillies took turns bashing to smithereens whatever narrative you were developing at the moment. For a while, it seemed as if there was something to say about Ervin Santana, and perhaps the Phillies' lineup. There is, after all, some relevant symmetry.
The Braves signed Santana in mid-March to a bargain deal after spending most of the offseason on the sidelines. A few weeks earlier, the Phillies had made a late-in-the-game signing of their own, adding A.J. Burnett to their rotation.
Santana struck out 11 batters in only six innings last night. In two starts, he has allowed one run, seven hits and two walks with 17 strikeouts in 14 innings.
Burnett? He has walked 14 batters with 10 strikeouts while allowing 11 runs in 16 innings in his first three starts. Yesterday, the Phillies announced that the 37-year-old veteran has an inguinal hernia that he will attempt to pitch through. At some point, there might be something to be said about Burnett and Santana, or Aaron Harang and Roberto Hernandez, or Tony Gwynn Jr. and Ben Revere and B.J. Upton. But that point is not right now.
We've written a lot about pitching over the last couple of weeks, and for a little while it looked as if that theme would again prove relevant. Hernandez allowed only two runs in six innings despite walking six, but B.J. Rosenberg allowed a trio of home runs in the eighth to turn a one-run deficit into a four-run deficit. It was his third straight outing, the previous two coming in high-pressure situations against the Marlins. Sunday's appearance featured a strikeout of Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. There was talk of momentum for a young bullpen that has had its share of struggles early on. But then a new day dawned.
Nevertheless, if you wanted to make the case that the Braves' bullpen was what gave them the edge in the National League playoff race, this was the wrong night to make it, because setup man Luis Avilan allowed five runs in the bottom of the eighth, including a three-run home run by Domonic Brown that gave the Phillies a 6-5 lead. On most nights, that would have meant Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth, but Papelbon had pitched in three straight games, and so the call went to Jake Diekman, who issued a couple of walks and allowed a grand slam to Dan Uggla, his second homer of the game, as the Braves once again took the lead.
Maybe the larger theme lies in all of the above, because of the number of questions that both teams must answer to contend. Three of the five starters who were supposed to compose the Braves' rotation are on the disabled list, two of them out for the season. Uggla was hitting .195 before last night. B.J. Upton was hitting .191, which actually represented an improvement over last season. Along with the offensively unproven Andrelton Simmons and utility man Ramiro Pena, the Braves' lineup has plenty of holes.
The questions facing the Phillies are familiar ground. The bullpen, the health of the rotation, the depth at the upper levels of the system. But you can say this: Over the last four games, they have been fun to watch.
The kind of firepower responsible for innings like the one that occurred in the eighth last night had been missing for only 2 years, but it felt longer.
"Character" was the word Ryne Sandberg used to describe what he saw in the Phillies' five-run eighth inning.
The Phillies used to be that kind of offense. You remember. Everybody does. It's why Philadelphians fell back in love with baseball. And while it is far too early to say that this Phillies team will score runs with anywhere near the regularity it did back in its prime, we most definitely can say that it will make you far more inclined to keep the television on than the last couple of versions did.
If last night happened last year, it would have been "Law and Order" time in the middle of the eighth inning. The Braves had just pounded three home runs off Rosenberg, thus turning a one-run lead into a four-run lead. But the Phillies answered. Gwynn walked, Jimmy Rollins singled, Chase Utley singled, Marlon Byrd singled a run home, and then Brown hit his first home run of the season, a three-run shot. So many nights over the last couple of seasons, the Phillies have looked incapable of producing such a rally.
Capable. At the very least, that's what they are this year. We can say that.
The rest will have to wait: for Cole Hamels to return for the Phillies, for Mike Minor to return for the Braves, for Domonic Brown and Jason Heyward to start hitting, for Mike Adams to return.
If the Phillies end up in the postseason race, hindsight will feel like a punch in the gut when the memory of losses like last night's surface. If they end up where they have the past couple of years, none of it will matter.
All we can do is wait and watch.