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June 17, 2024

Game 2 for Phillies even more disastrous than Opening Day

Game 2 for Phillies even more disastrous than Opening Day

Zack Wheeler departed after six glorious innings on Opening Day and pretty much everything has gone wrong for the Phillies since.

The Braves’ relentless offense followed nine runs Friday with 12 more Saturday. Aaron Nola turned in one of the worst performances of his career in his first start since signing a seven-year, $172 million contract, the Phillies lost their only long reliever to an injury and were never in Saturday’s game after the top of the second.

If you knew going in that the Phillies would chase Max Fried in the first inning, you’d probably think it was a productive bounce-back effort after the offense went quiet and the bullpen imploded on Opening Day.

Not so much.

Nola didn’t have his curveball or good command, allowing seven runs on a career-high 12 hits over 4⅓ innings. The Phillies lost 12-4. They’ve started 0-2 after dropping their first four games a season ago.

“We’re obviously better than we’re showing but the last two days haven’t been good,” Trea Turner said.

“I think you — not put so much pressure, we’ve got a veteran clubhouse — but you try so hard sometimes. You’ve got to take a step back and relax a bit. Sometimes early in the season, everyone gets caught up in things. You’re trying to settle in and you want to win the games, you don’t want to give these away because at the end of the year, they matter.”

Philadelphia Phillies

Nola’s day started unfortunately as Ronald Acuña Jr. grounded a ball softly to third base that Alec Bohm tried to field with his bare hand. Bohm may have had enough time to glove it and throw across the diamond but rushed because of Acuña’s speed and missed the ball. It was initially ruled an error, then changed to a hit in this offense-crazed official scoring environment of 2024.

Nola left a changeup over the middle of the plate to the next batter, Ozzie Albies, who sent it to the seats in right-center field.

The Phillies responded in the bottom of the first with three runs to take a brief lead. The key plate appearances were a Nick Castellanos two-out, bases-loaded walk and a Bryson Stott two-run single. Castellanos clearly struck out looking on a 2-2 count but home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman blew the call, extending the at-bat and enabling the Phillies to score three times.

Fried was all over the place with fluctuating velocity and was out after seven batters and 43 pitches.

But Atlanta just kept getting to Nola. Some of the hits were bloops or seeing-eye grounders but the outing can’t simply be chalked up to bad luck because there was also a fair share of hard contact. The seven runs were two more than Nola had ever allowed to the Braves in 35 career starts.

“We really just didn’t get enough swing-and-miss,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “It felt like they put the bat on the ball a lot and when they put the ball in play, they seemed to find a lot of holes. Just not having a putaway pitch, really. When we got to two strikes, we just didn’t execute enough to put guys away. They put it in play and beat us that way.

“They did what they’re supposed to, when they got to two strikes, they didn’t do too much, just tried to put the ball in play and they found holes.”

Manager Rob Thomson extended Nola a bit deeper than he otherwise might have because the Phillies don’t have a true long man in their bullpen. They have Luis Ortiz, who has pitched more than two innings twice in his career, but that’s essentially it. To make matters worse, Ortiz left Saturday’s game with a left ankle sprain. Even if he’s day-to-day, a roster move Sunday could be necessary given how many innings the Phils’ bullpen had to cover.

“Our bullpen’s not very deep coming into today and anybody we used yesterday that we used today, they’re down tomorrow,” Thomson said. “(Nola) gutted it out for us, probably saved the bullpen.”

The Braves have a bunch of sluggers coming off of career years, but their bottom-of-the-order did just as much damage Saturday. Michael Harris II has been a problem in the six-hole two days in a row, going 6-for-9 with a homer, double, walk, stolen base and five runs scored. Orlando Arcia, batting seventh, had three hits. Travis d’Arnaud hit a two-run double out of the eight-hole. And Jarred Kelenic delivered RBI singles in each of his first two at-bats out of the nine-spot.

He also robbed Bryce Harper with a diving catch in left-center to open the bottom of the third. There was more bad luck for Harper two innings later when he lined a ball right to first baseman Matt Olson, who doubled off Turner.

The one bit of fortune Saturday was that Harper avoided an injury when he flipped over the dugout railing into the camera well in the first inning. It was a scary play that hushed the crowd of 44,468 but Harper was fine after the play. Hustle is great but he and the Phillies would probably benefit from more caution. One out isn’t worth months on the shelf.

“He got banged up,” Thomson said. “That was a little concerning when he went into the well there, he hit it pretty hard. … It’s Bryce, he’s going to play the game hard all the time. It’s tough to rein him in, that’s just the way he is.”

The Phillies won’t have many opportunities this season to make up direct ground on the Braves. After the weekend, they don’t see Atlanta again until July 5-7, with the final two series coming over a 10-day span in late August.

The Braves are an elite team. They’re improved. They added Chris Sale to their rotation and built out their bullpen, which features four left-handers. Having that many lefties allows them to do things like use Tyler Matzek on Kyle Schwarber with two outs and a runner in scoring position in the fourth inning. The Braves had just two lefties on their 2023 NLDS roster, A.J. Minter and an ineffective Brad Hand. They’re better positioned this year to combat the Phillies’ top hitters.

The schedule softens after the Braves leave town with six of the Phillies’ next seven series coming against the lowly pitching staffs of the Nationals, Reds, Pirates, Rockies and White Sox. Regardless, salvaging the opening series and avoiding a sweep at the hands of their top rival is pretty important — even this time of year — from a mental standpoint as much as a practical one.

“Tough two, tough two to start the season off,” Nola said. “Come out tomorrow and compete, that’s all we can do. Try to get Game 3 and we’ve got a lot of baseball left. We know it’s going to be a battle against the Braves.”

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