The night before, Ryne Sandberg said the game begins with pitching and defense. Baseball, of course, is one of only two games - cricket is the other - in which the action is initiated by the defensive team, starting with the pitcher, but that's not what the Phillies manager was referencing.
He was talking about how teams with the best pitching and defense usually wind up at the top of the standings, a theory that can be proved simply by looking at the five National League teams that reached the postseason last season. They ranked one through five in team earned run average.
You can pretty much do the same exercise for every season and you'll find that teams with the best pitching almost always make the playoffs while high-powered offensive teams are much more hit or miss. Add good defense to good pitching and the chances of a great season multiply.
All of these truths should make something self-evident to the Phillies even before the calendar turns from April to May: They do not measure up to the defending National League East champion Atlanta Braves in either the pitching or the defensive department.
More proof of that was provided Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park when the fourth-place Phillies sent the best pitcher they have to the mound and were still left to deal with a 1-0 loss to the first-place Braves.
The problem wasn't Cliff Lee, although the one run he surrendered came on a pitch that caught far too much of the plate with the pitcher ahead in the count, 0-2. He called it a mistake. Evan Gattis turned it into a home run, his third of the series, his fifth in 24 at-bats at Citizens Bank Park.
"The pitch to Gattis, I made a mistake," Lee said. "It was 0-2 and he had just fouled off the previous fastball that was in the same spot that he hit the home run. He fouled it straight back and was right on it. I tried to elevate a fastball. It wasn't a bad spot, but it wasn't the spot I was trying to go to."
One mistake was one too many for Lee and the Phillies. The Braves trumped Lee's complete-game, 128-pitch performance with a masterful complete-game shutout from 23-year-old righthander Julio Teheran, who allowed just three singles and faced just 30 batters.
"The feedback from the guys and just watching him, he was really mixing speeds on his fastball," Sandberg said. "He was throwing anywhere from 86 to 92 or 93 with the fastball. He had different movements with each speed and guys were not able to gauge the speed and the movement and he mixed in his other pitches."
Teheran was the problem Wednesday night. The bigger problem for the Phillies and the rest of the National League East: As good as Teheran was, the Braves have waves more just like him and that's even after losing Kris Medlen, their best starter last season, to elbow surgery.
Some of the Braves' rotation is the by-product of good fortune. They signed free agent Ervin Santana at the cost of $14.1 million and their 2014 first-round draft pick only because of Medlen's season-ending injury. Santana has given them two sensational starts and a terrific rotation depth. Whom would you rather have: Santana or Roberto Hernandez?
For the bargain-basement price of $1 million, veteran righthander Aaron Harang has been the Braves' best pitcher so far this season, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning and posting a 0.96 ERA in his first three starts. He wouldn't be the first aging pitcher to find the fountain of youth in Atlanta. Whom would you rather have: Harang or Jonathan Pettibone?
And, of course, the young have blossomed with the Braves, too. Atlanta will send 23-year-old lefty Alex Wood out for the series finale Thursday afternoon and he has a 2.89 ERA in his first 34 big-league games, including a 1.89 ERA in three starts this season.
Lefty Mike Minor, 26, is expected to return to the rotation next week after battling a couple of injuries in spring training. His return will give the Braves three of the best young starters in baseball, and they already have a better bullpen and defense than the Phillies.
Cole Hamels is expected back for the Phillies next week after making his final rehab start Thursday in Clearwater. But even with his return the Phillies appear well short in the pitching department when you hold them up in the light next to the Braves.