For three-plus innings Thursday, the Phillies looked unstoppable.
Their offense was humming. They had torched the best pitcher in baseball, Jacob deGrom, for five runs on seven extra base hits while Aaron Nola hadn’t allowed even a hit.
It was as if all the good from 2022 was, in fact, carrying over.
But a new calendar has a way of bringing with it some cruel fate in baseball, including sobering reminders that last year is in the past and 2023 brings a different challenge.
In a matter of minutes, all the feel-good went sour faster than misdated milk.
Nola was torched for five runs in the bottom of the fourth, but it didn’t stop there. Gregory Soto relieved him, faced four hitters, got none of them out, and then Connor Brogdon, the third pitcher of the inning yielded a double before finally recording an out in what would be a nine-run inning for Texas.
The Rangers punched the defending National League champs in the face, and the Phillies were so dazed and confused, they couldn’t respond, completely perplexed by what had just taken place, and eventually lost 11-7 on Opening Day.
This was not the plan. Especially after leading 5-0. Especially after chasing deGrom before his team even registered a hit. Especially with the starting rotation in a bit of a state of flux after Nola and Zack Wheeler and the Yankees looming in a few days.
Yes, there are 162 games, and this is just one of them, but the number of games that you give away and turn from a win into a loss need to be few and far between over the course of a season, especially in a division as competitive as the N.L. East.
Let’s break it down. Here’s today’s table of contents:
- Nola Contendere
- One Out Would Be Nice
- Under the Radar
- Rob Manfred’s Lying Circus
- A Silver Lining
1. Nola Contendere
For those that don’t get the title of this section, it’s a play on words. There is legal jargon called “nolo contendere,” which is Latin for “I do not contend.” It’s used to describe a plea in a criminal prosecution in which the defendant accepts a conviction without admitting guilt.
Considering Nola didn’t officially take the loss in this game – it went to Soto instead – it’s as if the box score didn’t identify him as the guilty party that he was.
But, as is often the situation with high profile criminal cases that return a verdict not in tune with the vocal minority, Phillies Twitter still wasn’t very kind:
Aaron nola stinks
— drew (@PlayoffHurts) March 31, 2023
Thanks for turning Opening Day into a normal Thursday, Aaron Nola.
— duh glass (@DouglasGorti) March 30, 2023
I’m so over Aaron Nola.
— Bryce Wendler (@brycewendler) March 30, 2023
There were even some respected sports voices who weighed in:
Aaron Nola is exactly who he was today. It’s funny to see people trying to pretend otherwise.
— Les Bowen (@LesBowen) March 31, 2023
Good thing this guy exists on Twitter though:
Earned Runs today
Jacob DeGrom: 5
Corbin Burnes: 4
Aaron Nola: 5
Alek Manoah: 5
Pablo Lopez: 0
Is Pablo Lopez the best pitcher in baseball?
— Kev (@VikesFanKev) March 31, 2023
Look, it was not a good outing from Nola. There’s no way else to describe it. He looked off in the first inning, even though he didn’t allow a hit.
It took him 22 pitches to get through that inning and his curve ball didn’t look sharp. His two-seamer wasn’t either, and as such, Nola got away from it and basically turned himself into a 4-seam/curve only pitcher. Of the 72 pitches he threw, 72% were either a four-seamer or his curve.
He looked better in innings two and three, and for a little, there was a thought that maybe he was settled down and could give you some length in the game, especially with a five-run cushion.
But then the fourth inning happened. His velocity was down (Normally his fastball is 94-95, it was around 92 for much of this inning), he started missing his spots and then this pitch to Robbie Grossman was plain bad:
Rangers' Robbie Grossman blasts a game-tying three-run homer to right field off Phillies' Aaron Nola in the fourth inning https://t.co/Y4F3Tfb3UU
— MLB on Scoreboard Page (@MLBonSP) March 31, 2023
He was out of sorts before this at bat, having already yielded two runs and allowing four of the first five batters he faced in the inning to reach base. Rob Thomson probably should have pulled him sooner, but didn’t, and, well, we all know the outcome.
Nola admitted after the game that he’s still not comfortable with the pitch clock. He’s used to slowing the game down when a couple guys hit him, allowing him to reset, and to control the pace and throw off timing.
And while you won’t ever hear me defend the pitch clock because it’s awful for the sport (debate for another time, please) Nola has to figure out how to deal with it because it’s here. It’s a thing. It’s not going away any time soon.
“You have to control the clock, not let the clock control you,” Thomson said after the game – and he’s right.
All that said, it’s one game in March. Yes it counts, and no it wasn’t good. And if Nola strings several of these bad outings together into late April/early May, then I’ll join you in concern. But, as that guy Kev pointed out on Twitter, other great pitchers got torched on Opening Day. It’s where pitchers are at this point sometimes.
Considering Nola only threw 13 innings against opposing teams in Spring Training, maybe the ire should be more with the Phillies for overprotecting their pitchers in Clearwater. Gerrit Cole threw 22 innings for the Yankees in Grapefruit League action, and while that, too, is a low total, maybe his arm was more where it needed to be by Opening Day, and he struck out 11 Giants in five innings of work.
Nola’s next start will come against those Yankees next Wednesday. I expect a better performance. We all should.
2. One out would be nice
Nola blew a five-run lead for the first time in his career, but the Phillies were still in the game when he left. They were practically out of it after Soto and Brogdon allowed four more runs to score in relief of Nola before finally recording the last out of that inning.
Soto was especially concerning. He came in and couldn’t throw strikes. He has a history of being a bit wild, but in that instance, you need to pitch to contact. Of course, Soto isn’t used to entering a game in the fourth inning and trying to just get one out to keep the game close. He came in with a closer mentality and overthrew everything in his first appearance for his new team. He went walk, single, walk, single, shower.
And while Soto needed to better grasp the situation, so did Thomson. I really question his decision to go to Soto in that spot.
Thomson had already mentioned before the game that he wanted to get Matt Strahm into the game so that there wouldn’t be eight days between his last Spring appearance and his start at Yankee Stadium next Tuesday.
Strahm eventually came in and pitched the eighth inning and did well, but wouldn’t this have been a better spot for him? He’s used to coming into a game in the middle innings. And you still had a left-on-left matchup and two-out-of three batters being lefty, and it would have allowed the bigger lefty arms – Soto and Jose Alvarado – to still be available for later in the game, assuming it was still close.
Thomson made the wrong choice here, and it cost them.
Of course, Connor Brogdon didn’t help. He comes in down a run and gives up a three-run single to Adolis Garcia.
Then, after the Philies get a run back and are trying to claw back into this mess, and with former teammate Brad Miller at the plate – who Brogdon HAS TO KNOW only hunts fastballs – Connor offers this cookie to Bamboo Brad, complete with the glass of milk to dunk it in:
IT'S MILLER TIME! #StraightUpTX pic.twitter.com/TpWwyiuJSX
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) March 30, 2023
On to the good stuff…
Like Aaron Nola, Jacob deGrom was torched on Opening Day. Of course, Twitter didn’t kill him, but, hey… he doesn’t play for a Philadelphia team.
Still, the Phillies approach against deGrom was superb. They hit the balls were they were pitched – with several guys peppering the right field line. They were aggressive early in at bats – because the further you get behind deGrom, the less likely you are to get on base. And they tagged him for six extra base hits and five runs.
It was surgical.
Leading the charge were couple of guys who need to provide offense in the wake of there being no Rhys Hoskins for the season and no Bryce Harper for at least two months – and they are Nick Castellanos and Alec Bohm.
With the exception of the first two swings of his final at bat, where it felt like Castellanos chased pitches out of the zone, he had quality at bats, and that’s despite striking out three times.
He had two hits – a single and a double – and scored two runs. He even had a nice play in right field and picked up an outfield assist. On the whole, a solid day for Casty.
But Bohm was the hitting star. He was a triple short of the cycle and this swing off deGrom was a thing of beauty:
Alec Bohm 1st #RingTheBell pic.twitter.com/NWJqjwfyV5
— Homers MLB (@homers_mlb) March 31, 2023
The narrative of him bulking up in the offseason and having more power in his swings has already been discussed ad nauseam, but the more interesting thing with Bohm is his confidence at the plate. He already had an advanced approach for a young player, and his willingness to hit to all fields made opponents respect him and not shift him (when the shift was allowed).
But in Spring Training he just looked different at the plate – as if he was expecting to get a hit every time up – and that certainly translated to the first game of the season. That confidence could be a game-changer not only elevating Bohm to another level, but also for what promises to be a potent Phillies lineup all season.
J.T. Realmuto also had three hits (he was a homer shy of the cycle) Brandon Marsh had a double and a triple and Trea Turner had an amazing triple of his own. The Phillies weren’t just aggressive at the plate, they were aggressive running the bases as well. This offense is going to be incredibly fun to watch.
4. Under the radar
Some other important observations from opening day include:
1) Andrew Vazquez, Andrew Bellatti and Strahm all did nice work out of the bullpen. Even with an off day in between the first two games, cleaning up the Nola/Soto/Brogdon mess was important as it allowed Thomson to not have to use Seranthony Dominguez, Alvarado, or Craig Kimbrel in a game in which the Phillies were trailing.
2) Jake Cave was 0-for-4, and while some will look at the box score and say, “It’s not Spring Training anymore, Jake,” two of his outs were really well-hit balls. One was a scorching line out, and the other was a home run taken away on a nice play by Rangers centerfielder Bubba Thompson:
BUBBA BROUGHT IT BACK 😲 pic.twitter.com/izT0OCaMZ5
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) March 30, 2023
3) Kyle Schwarber and Darick Hall were a combined 0-for-9 with a walk. Hall had an RBI ground out, but Schwarber was frustrated all day, especially with home plate umpire Jeff Nelson’s strike zone which stretched out to Eric Gregg-level proportions. Making matters worse for Schwarber was he was at the plate when deGrom’s PitchCom device “suddenly” crapped out just before he was going to be called for a pitch clock violation, which led to a lengthy delay. It threw off Schwarber’s timing at the plate, and forced him to try and hit a 98MPH fastball on the first pitch afterward, which he futilely waved at and he had some words for Nelson afterward. Which brings me to…
5. Rob Manfred’s lying circus
So, deGrom used PitchCom malfunction as a way to stop the clock. He showed Nelson his hat and made him listen that no sound was coming through it. It was all on video. Nelson originally still called him for a violation and gave him a ball. He huddled with the other umpires, who also seemed to not know the rule in this instance. Then, after a discussion with Texas manager Bruce Bochy, Nelson called up to the video replay booth for clarification.
In the end, they waved off the violation, and, after a long delay, the game resumed and deGrom struck out Schwarber on the next pitch.
Ironically, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was at the game, and came on the Phillies broadcast the next inning and flat out lied to the world.
He said that Nelson originally called the violation because he didn’t know that deGrom’s PitchCom had stopped working and that after video review, they overturned the violation when it was apparent that was the cause.
Meanwhile we had just watched deGrom and Nelson talking about PitchCom problems before the violation was signaled. And, in fact, we watched deGrom hold his hat up close to Nelson so he could hear for himself that it had malfunctioned.
Then we watched the umps huddle. Then the violation was called. Then it was overruled by the off-field officials.
The reality? Nobody knows what the rules are, even after six weeks of Spring Training. Messes like this do not speed up the game, they in fact, slow them down. And while games are faster because of the clock, the clock is not creating more action – which is what baseball needs. Instead, it’s just hurrying up the game, and it’s a detriment to both pitchers and hitters, which we heard Nola complain about and saw Schwarber complain about.
In the words of the King, “It’s a joooooke.”
6. A silver lining
If there’s one thing you can take from this ugly loss on Opening Day it’s this – at least no one got hurt.
You can say that after most games sure, but then there was this news from each of the Phillies biggest rivals on Opening Day:
Justin Verlander will be placed on the IL with a low grade teres major strain. He will continue throwing at moderate intensity and we will rescan in a week. We will provide an update at that time.
— New York Mets (@Mets) March 30, 2023
LHP Max Fried was removed from today’s game with left hamstring discomfort.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) March 30, 2023
Yeah, they both won, and the Phillies didn’t, but neither sign is good for those teams, at least in the short-term.
Oh… and one last thing….
Huge congrats to my partner and his wife Holly. The universe is saying something to have this happen on Opening Day.
Happy Opening Day!
No coverage or podcast from me this weekend. I’ll be following along from the hospital, where my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy earlier this morning.
Enjoy the game!
— Bob Wankel (@BobWankelCB) March 30, 2023
Baby Boy Wankel. MLB first round draft pick in 2041. Book it.