Last month, after Atlanta polished off its third series win over the Phillies in as many tries, I wrote:
The bottom line is this: The Phillies, if nothing else, have made themselves relevant after one month of baseball, but if they wish to remain that way beyond the Sixers’ playoff run and into the summer months, the offense needs to wake up and they need to start handling their shit against teams like the Braves.
At the time, “teams like the Braves” meant average ones that possess less talent than the Phillies. Atlanta was a surprising 16-11 and a team seemingly playing above its head. Fast forward three weeks to this morning ahead of what is arguably the most meaningful series played at Citizens Bank Park in nearly seven years, and, well, it appears the Braves are very much for real. They are good, and they are feeling it right now:
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) May 20, 2018
They enter tonight’s series opener between the current top two teams in the NL East with a 28-17 record, a plus-65 run differential, and having already spent 20 days this season atop the division.
What I wrote back in April still technically remains true—the Phillies do need to starting handling their shit against teams like the Braves. It’s just for a very different reason. Atlanta is not the hapless opponent that I initially suspected would willingly help pad the Phillies’ win total. They are instead a team that has, to this point, outpaced the Phillies while mastering them in the process. Will the Braves ultimately prove to be the 100-win juggernaut that they are currently on pace to become? That seems ambitious, but they are most certainly not a cute ,early-season feel good story that will slowly drift into irrelevance by summer’s end.
Atlanta leads the National League in runs scored, OPS, slugging percentage, batting average, total bases, and is second in home runs. In other words, these guys mash. Rookies Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. have brought excitement and pop to a Braves lineup that has been buoyed by veterans like Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman.
If a lineup built upon the promise of youthful talent that is solidified by veterans sounds like a familiar template, that’s because it’s the same one the Phillies hoped to use this season. For various reasons, that plan hasn’t worked out as well here to this point.
Meanwhile, the Braves also sport the NL’s third-best ERA, thanks in large part to the formidable trio of Julio Teheran (4-1, 4.17), Sean Newcomb (5-1, 2.39), and Mike Foltynewicz (3-2, 2.87). Throw in Brandon McCarthy, who is just a guy, but has managed a 3-0 record with a 2.25 ERA in three starts against the Phillies this year, and here we are.
So what exactly does this mean for the Phillies? Let’s not oversell what’s about to go down in South Philly over the next three days starting tonight. Measured me knows this series still only represents three games out of 162, but measured me is going to take a backseat for a moment. For a team that has been a dismal 8-14 in the National League East and has been roughed up by the Braves over this season’s first two months, I want to see them come out swinging and punch back with authority in this series. Yeah, I know. Narratives rarely have a place in the game of baseball these days, but that does not mean all narratives are trivial. Don’t think for one second that the Phillies aren’t tired of hearing about their lackluster performance against NL East opponents, or how the Braves have their number. At least they had better be tired of it. No more making Ender Inciarte look like Rickey Henderson, or Brandon McCarthy look like a guy who doesn’t sport a 6.53 ERA against the rest of baseball this season. Enough is enough.
This series presents not only an opportunity for the Phillies to bridge the gap in the NL East, but it also provides them with an opportunity to make a, dare I say, bold statement about their intentions over the next few months. The Phillies have already played 22 games at Citizens Bank Park this season, but meaningful baseball returns in earnest to South Philadelphia tonight. Let’s see if the home team is ready for it.