After winning 13-of-15 to stabilize their season and get back in the thick of the National League playoff race, the Phillies were offered a sobering reminder Tuesday that the Atlanta Braves are still the cream of the crop.

The Phillies can play with them. They can compete with them. They proved that by splitting a four-game series in Atlanta last month, one of the few highlights in an otherwise dreadful month of May.

Heck, they proved they can beat the Braves, too. We try to avoid hearkening back to October, 2022 that often, but it did happen.

What the Phillies can’t do is beat themselves against the Braves, and really, that’s what happened in the opener of a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park Tuesday, as Atlanta snapped the Phillies’ 6-game winning streak, beating the Fightins’ 4-2.

It was a game that was there for the taking for the Phillies, who just let several opportunities wither away, and then once the Braves took the lead, had a bunch of head-scratching decisions that impeded any thought of a comeback.

Let’s look at each of them:

Space Ranger

If he continues to pitch like he has in his last five starts, Ranger Suarez could well help take the Phillies to infinity and beyond:

Those five starts have come against the Mets, Nationals, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Braves. And while the Mets and Nats rank in the bottom half of the Majors in OPS, the Dodgers are sixth, the D-backs are fourth and the Braves are best in the sport. He’s faced some good lineups.

In those five games, he’s thrown 32 2/3 innings, allowing just 25 hits and five runs (all earned) while striking out 29 and walking just nine.

To update Corey’s numbers, that’s a 1.38 ERA with a 1.041 WHIP and opposing hitters are slashing just .214/.268/.316 with a .584 OPS against him.

It’s dominance.

The pitch mix is excellent. His location is excellent. His curve ball – which he’s been throwing more and more of late – is excellent.

And he cruised through the Braves lineup until Austin Riley hit a solo homer off him in the sixth inning, but that was the only blemish on an otherwise stellar outing.

Shame the Phillies wasted it.

We’ll get to the lack of clutch hitting in a minute, but some more stuff on Suarez:

  • This marks the first time in his career that Suarez has pitched four consecutive games with at least six innings and allowing one run or fewer.
  • It’s also the first time in his career where he’s struck out at least seven batters in three consecutive games.

It’s no secret that a big key to the Phillies turnaround this month has been the improvement of their starting pitching. In the last 16 games, starters have thrown 94 innings and have a 1.72 ERA and a 0.904 WHIP. They’ve struck out 100 batters while walking just 24. They’ve yielded just four home runs – one in each of Aaron Nola’s three starts and Riley’s homer off of Suarez Tuesday. They’ve allowed one earned run or fewer in 13 of the 16 games. The only three they didn’t was when they imploded in the seventh inning of a 9-0 loss to the Dodgers in which Nola was charged with six earned runs, Matt Strahm allowing three earned runs early in an 8-7 loss to the Diamondbacks and Nola having that one inning in Arizona where he let up four runs but held on for the win in a 5-4 Phillies victory.

Suarez has been at the center of it with his pitching performances and if he can keep it rolling, the Phillies will be just fine and dandy.

They need to hit a little, too

This has been the biggest frustration of the season for the Phillies – unable to score runners once they are in scoring position.

The Phillies were hot and cold against Atlanta’s Spencer Strider Tuesday. They did get eight hits off him, but they were only able to muster one run, striking out nine times.

They had two men on base in the first inning, but J.T. Realmuto struck out to end the threat. Brandon Marsh led off the third inning with a double, but was left stranded. Bryce Harper and Realmuto led off the fourth with back-to-back singles, but were immediately erased in a weird double play where Harper misread a ball off Bryson Stott’s bat, thinking the sinking liner could be caught, and ended up getting himself trapped in no-man’s land on the bases and the Braves turned the ol’ 6-4-5 double play.

The Phillies did get a run in the fifth on an RBI single by Nick Castellanos, giving them a brief 1-0 lead:

Harper struck out after that, leaving two more runners on base.

In all, four golden opportunities before the Braves even put a run on the board, and the Phillies ended up with just one run.

They would end up leaving eight runners on base in the game. When you have 11 hits and a walk (they need more than one of those, to be honest) you need to score more than two runs. Plain and simple. The Phillies were 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position in the game. That’s unacceptable.

For the season, the Phillies are hitting .240 with RISP. That ranks 24th out of 30 teams in MLB. Their OPS with RISP is .672. That ranks 27th. That OPS relative to the league’s OPS is the same as the Oakland A’s. Let that sink in for a minute.

Now… onto some questionable or flat out dumb decision-making.

Pushing the wrong buttons? 

After Suarez was lifted following his stellar performance, Rob Thomson turned the game over to Jeff Hoffman in the seventh.

Phillies Twitter went ballistic about this in the moment…

Wait… they’re still complaining about it:

What wasn’t known at the time was that three Phillies relievers were unavailable in the game – Matt Strahm, Yunior Marte, and Jose Alvarado.

Even with an off day, the Phillies are doing their rendition of load management, and because Marte and Alvarado pitched both Saturday and Sunday, they felt that they didn’t want to ask either of them to throw three times in four nights in June. Meanwhile, Strahm’s workload is being closely monitored because he just hasn’t thrown a lot since before the pandemic.

Couple that with Seranthony Dominguez being on the I.L. with a oblique strain, and the options were pretty limited. Thomson went with Hoffman instead of lefty Andrew Vasquez because the Braves were at the bottom of the order and he wanted to save both Gregory Soto and Craig Kimbrel for the eighth and ninth innings, assuming they were still tied or had the lead.

But to get there, you have to get through the seventh, and Hoffman struggled to do that, coughing up the lead in the process.

It started with a leadoff walk of Orlando Arcia and was followed by a pinch hit double by Eddie Rosario, putting runners on second and third with nobody out.

“We knew they were going to pinch hit but with (Hoffman’s) splitter we thought that could neutralize their left-handed bats a little bit,” Thomson said. “But, to me, the leadoff walk was the deal. That gives them the momentum. You got to knock that guy down first.”

Kody Clemens made a really nice play on a sharp grounder by Michael Harris II that kept the runners where they were and got the first out, but that brought Ronald Acuna to the plate.

Now, with one out, and the early-season MVP frontrunner at the plate and a base open, one would think that an intentional walk would make some sense.

Yes, Ozzie Albies, who was on deck, is tough to double because of his speed, but it also sets up a force at every base, and forces the runners to move on any ball hit on the ground, meaning weak contact could induce a force at the plate.

Instead, they decided to pitch to Acuna:

This exchange happened between myself and Thomson in the post-game press conference:

Me: Any thought of walking Acuna in that spot?

Thomson: No.

Well, O.K.

For the record, Albies then grounded out to second.

In the bottom of the seventh, noted speedster Kyle Schwarber came to the plate with two outs and tried to bunt for a hit. It went right back to pitcher A.J. Minter for an easy out.

Two outs. Down two runs. Seventh inning. Best home run hitter in the N.L. in the last season-and-a-half. Runs as fast as me.

Yeah, let’s bunt.

Kevin Cooney said it best:

In the eighth inning the Braves made it 4-1 when Matt Olson hit a home run that have just landed on the beach in Atlantic City.

BTW… a lot of teams have this thumbs up celebration. It’s not all that creative. Maybe a couple of teams, Phillies included, can switch it up to something more entertaining after the All-Star break. 

I only point out Olson’s homer because it sets up the bottom of the eighth for more Phillies head-slapping.

With two out and Nick Castellanos on first, J.T. Realmuto lined a single to centerfield. It was always a single. It ended up being scored a single. The only person who didn’t think it was a single was Realmuto, who inexplicably tried to stretch it into a double.

They reviewed the play, and Albies did miss Realmuto on the initial tag, but he held the tag through the slide and Realmuto’s hand may or may not have come off the base. It’s too hard to tell, but, again, here’s the situation.

Down three. Bottom of the eighth. Two out. Tying run on deck.

WHY try to turn it into a double?

“Just trying to be overaggressive,” Thomson said. “Trying to do too much.”

Thanks, Tips.

The Phillies got a run in the ninth and brought the tying run to the plate in Schwarber, but he struck out and the six-game winning streak ended. It didn’t have to. The Phillies had plenty of chances to keep it going. They either didn’t execute or made some bad choices that set them back even further.

You can get away with it against the Nationals. The Tigers. The A’s.

But not the Braves.

Hopefully it’s lesson learned.

Misc. stuff

  • Brandon Marsh had three hits. It was a needed game for him after striking out in 25 of his previous 49 at bats. With Christian Pache back and looking good, Thomson said pre-game there’s going to be a platoon in centerfield. Maybe the friendly competition is  what reignites Marsh.
  • Harper has now gone 21 games without a home run – the third-longest stretch in his career. Conversely, he had another 2-hit game. He has had multiple hits in 16 of the 29 games in which he has collected at least one hit.
  • Strider has won the first six starts of his career against the Phillies (playoffs not included). It’s only the fifth time that’s ever happened to the Phillies and it’s the first time since the 1920s when Carl Hubbell and Charlie Root did it.
  • The Phillies activated third-string catcher Rafael Marchan from the 60-day I.L. and optioned him to AAA Lehigh Valley. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Phillies released starting pitcher Michael Plassmeyer. He was originally in the mix to be the No. 5 starter in Spring Training, but he had a terrible start to the season with the Iron Pigs and is now gone.
  • According to Thomson Dominguez is expected to return from his I.L. stint right about when it will expire, which is July 1.
  • Andrew Painter threw another bullpen session Tuesday in Clearwater, his third. This one was 30 pitches. He is expected to take live batting practice soon.
  • Noah Song is expected to begin a rehab assignment next week. He should finally see the big league roster not too long after that.