I like to clown my seamhead friends when they inevitably freak out if their team struggles at the start of the season. Don’t worry, there are about 723 games left. It’s my wisecracking way of saying baseball is the longest season of them all, so there’s really no reason to panic until June approaches.
That’s why I chuckled at myself as I headed to Citizen Bank Park on Thursday feeling as if this is a big series for the Braves. That’s not just because they are the defending National League East champions and the Phillies are a threat to dethrone them. It’s also that Phillies-Braves to begin the season is the perfect way to end their parallel offseason narratives.
Right off the bat we get the Phillies and their prolific payroll against Team Tightwad. The Phillies famously declared they would spend “stupid” money to add players this offseason and did so. The Braves declared they would put some of their skyrocketing profits into player payroll, but lowered it.
It turned out Game 1 fit neatly into that spending vs. stingy storyline. The Phillies won 10-4 even though their $330 million man, Bryce Harper, didn’t even get a hit.
The Phillies got plenty of punch from the other big-salary guys they’ve added. They beat the Braves so soundly that many fans in what had been a rowdy ballpark from well before first pitch got bored and left once Philadelphia went ahead 10-3 in the seventh inning.
Meanwhile, the bullpen the Braves didn’t bolster in the winter got lit up. Their lineup didn’t do anything until it didn’t matter.
It was only one loss for the Braves, albeit an ugly one. This series may end up having zero bearing on the Braves’ fortunes this season.
“The only thing that today means is we can’t go 162-0,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman said.
That’s the logical way to look at it. But if the Braves flounder in Philly it will increase the grumbling among customers already irritated by the team pocketing profits from their taxpayer-subsidized stadium. That wouldn’t be a rational reaction after three games, but as my baseball-fan friends panicking in April illustrate, emotions run high when a team with high expectations stumbles out of the gate.
For the Braves, that phenomenon is compounded by facing the Phillies first. Philadelphia pounded three homers on a bad day for Harper, a reminder that they already had pop before signing him early in spring training. Braves relievers gave up seven runs, a reminder that a major team weakness in 2018 may not be much better in 2019.
No one expected the Braves to go out and spend megabucks on multiple star players. It wasn’t unreasonable to think they would add some reliable and cost-effective relievers. They didn’t, and now that group is paper thin because of injuries.
As a result, the Braves manager Brian Snitker had to turn to Shane Carle and Luke Jackson to keep them in the game Thursday. Carle walked two batters in the sixth inning before Maikel Franco homered. Jackson walked Andrew McCutchen to begin Philadelphia’s eighth, committed a throwing error on Jean Segura’s single and then gave up a grand slam to Rhys Hoskins after Snitker intentionally walked Harper.
Carle is inexperienced. Jackson was bad at the end of last season, a trend that continued during spring training. I suppose Snitker could have gone with Wes Parsons to begin the sixth or seventh instead of using him to end the sixth, but he probably would still need one or the other eventually.
“It’s a situation where that part of the bullpen is going to have to come in and give us a crack at it, and we couldn’t do it today,” Snitker said.
Maybe it gets better when A.J. Minter and Darren O’Day return from the injured list. Minter doesn’t have a long track record. Injuries have dogged O’Day, 36, since June. Those two are better options than any available to the Braves now behind closer Arodys Vizcaino.
It wasn’t all bad for the Braves. Starter Julio Teheran was good while allowing three runs in five innings with seven strikeouts and one unintentional walk. Teheran’s fastball was in the 91-93 mph range, and his slider was sharp.
That outing, a carryover from Teheran’s strong spring, is a good development for the Braves. They need him to be good. They haven’t added a veteran pitcher to their shallow rotation and, as mentioned, the bullpen is going to be an adventure for at least the early weeks of the season.
The rotation is one of the major holes the Braves didn’t fill by spending money. The Phillies spent themselves silly. The results were immediate, with three new sluggers not named Harper giving it to the Braves.
McCutchen led off the game with a homer. In the fourth inning Segura singled before scoring and J.T. Realmuto walked before coming home. The Phillies have so many new bashers that holdover Franco now is hitting eighth.
“They’ve got a great offense,” Freeman said. “They made a lot of moves to make that offense very powerful. They showed it today.”
It was only one game. There are 161 to go. But there could be plenty more like this after the Braves chose paying off debt over paying for more good players.
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