No surprise here: Braves promising in winning series over Phillies

PHILADELPHIA – The Phillies wanted to start their season fast. Their bullpen was rated as the best in the major leagues.

And then the Braves came to town. The six-time defending National League East champions, they of the back-to-back 100-win seasons, scored a decisive series win over Philadelphia in the opening weekend of the season. Nearly the entirety of the 162-game season remains after the anticipated meeting between the Braves and their nemesis in red. But the Braves look much like the same team that won the division going away a year ago and produces hits and runs as though paced by metronome.

A raucous home crowd (though gradually less so Friday and Saturday), a 2-0 deficit in the first game after six innings and a dreadful start by starter Max Fried in the second game were not enough to prevent the Braves from taking two of three at Citizens Bank Park. Only by salvaging a win on Easter Sunday did the Phillies prevent their aggrieved supporters from pelting them with chocolate bunnies and Peeps.

Overall, the Braves lineup, their historic 2023 performance in the books, was just too much. The juggernaut has picked up where it left off (at least where it left off at the end of the regular season).

“This was a tough series,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Sunday after the series-ending loss. “It’s a good series to win, to start off on. It’s on to Chicago and try to win another one (against the White Sox).”

Saturday’s middle game captured the Braves at their relentless best. They scored seven runs in the first three innings and added a four-spot in the sixth. In the first three innings, the Braves sent 19 batters to the plate. Eleven reached base. The bottom four was 6-for-7 with three doubles and a walk. Five different players tagged starter Aaron Nola for an extra-base hit. Ozzie Albies and Matt Olson reached the seats. Michael Harris II and Travis d’Arnaud hit doubles off 0-2 counts.

“Their whole lineup’s good,” said Nola, whom the Braves mugged for seven runs (all earned) and 12 hits in 4 1/3 innings. “They hit for average, for power and they run and put pressure on you.”

On a drizzly day, the succession of base hits against Nola, whom the Phillies had awarded a seven-year, $172 million contract to stay with the team this past offseason, drained the enthusiasm from sold-out Citizens Bank Park. It was a truly impressive display of batsmanship.

“They hit for power and they have good two-strike approaches and they put the ball in play,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said after the game. “(Saturday), a lot of balls found green.”

They’re actually quite effective at this sort of thing. A year ago, when they tied the Major League record for home runs in a season and set the record for slugging percentage, the Braves were also the fifth-hardest team to strike out and eighth in BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

“They made contact,” Snitker said Saturday. “Just good at-bats.”

The Braves knocked around a Phillies bullpen that prior to the start of the season was projected by FanGraphs to be the best in baseball, scoring nine runs in three innings Friday in a 9-3 opening-day win and then five in 4 2/3 Saturday in the 12-4 win that clinched the series.

“Their bullpen came in, they tried to hold the game, but we had our ‘A’ game and that’s all I can say,” Albies told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday prior to the final game of the series.

Only Sunday was the Braves’ offense muted. After National League MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. walked to lead off the game and Albies homered – the second game in a row that Acuña got on base in the first inning and Albies followed with a home run – the Braves finagled but six hits and two runs the rest of the game in a 5-4 defeat.

But the three-game damage – 25 runs (12 for Philadelphia), 39 hits (22 by the Phillies) and five home runs, two by Albies (three for the Phillies) – was one-sided. The Braves bullpen merits credit, having limited the Phillies to five earned runs in 15 innings (3.00 ERA) with 12 hits and four walks allowed against 12 strikeouts. Sunday’s starter, Chris Sale, did his job in his debut after being acquired in a trade with the Red Sox (5 1/3 innings, two earned runs, five hits, two walks and seven strikeouts).

“After last night and (Fried’s) short start, we needed somebody (to save the bullpen’s arms) and he took us into the sixth,” Snitker said. “Stepped up big time for me.”

How much does it mean? Probably about as much as any other three-game segment of the season. The Phillies had declared their intent to start the season better after beginning the 2023 season 0-4 and 5-10 and the 2022 season with a 4-8 record and were having their feet held to the fire by local media after dropping the first two games of the series.

But no Braves fan needs to be reminded how the last two slow-starting Phillies seasons turned out. (In case you’re not a Braves fan, the Phillies sent the Braves home from the postseason both years.)

The Braves started the 2021 season 0-4 and 4-8 and didn’t get over .500 until the 111th game of the season. It somehow didn’t keep them from holding the World Series trophy aloft in November.

“You want to come out and get off to a good start,” Olson told The AJC prior to Sunday’s game. “But it’s just two games. We’ve got 160 left. We just take it day by day.”

Day by day, and October will eventually be here. Chances are, the Phillies will be there, too.

“You’re talking about two of the best teams in the league,” Sale said. “Two incredible fan bases. The atmosphere was incredible here this weekend. I’m assuming there’s going to be some more of that throughout the year. We look forward to that. That’s what we want.”