The Phillies wasted a terrific Zack Wheeler start and were ultimately pummeled by the Braves, 9-3, in an ugly Opening Day defeat. The top of the lineup failed to contribute, the bullpen effectively lit the game on fire, and by the eighth inning, the Braves had clearly reminded everybody why they’re once again an overwhelming favorite to win the NL East.

For much of the day, it felt like the lasting images of this game would be Wheeler strolling off the mound after six shutout innings, Brandon Marsh’s go-ahead two-run homer, and, of course, a frustrated Spencer Strider walking off the mound after things went sideways on him in the fifth.

That was not the lasting image — at all. Not after the Braves thrashed the Phillies’ bullpen in the seventh and eighth innings to the tune of nine total runs, seven of which came in the eighth alone.

I’m not going to hit you with the R-E-L-A-X after you waited 157 days following a miserable Game 7 of the NLCS to watch meaningful baseball again. I won’t lie, it was pretty damn ugly. But yes, it was just one game.

Let’s do some observations.

The Seventh Inning: Bad

I don’t know where else I can possibly start.

The bullpen was a disaster. Phillies relievers faced 18 Braves batters in the 7th and 8th innings, and allowed 12 of them to reach base and nine of them to score.

The seventh featured an instantly questionable decision by Rob Thomson, but the eighth inning was so gruesome that it was immediately overshadowed. Let’s address the decision in question first.

Wheeler out after six shutout innings and 89 pitches? No problem there. Going to Matt Strahm? It didn’t work out, but that’s fine. He is a trusted guy and Thomson obviously wanted to save José Alvarado for Matt Olson later in the game. Once, however, the Braves put two runners in scoring position with only one away and Adam Duvall in to pinch-hit, Strahm probably should have been out of the game. “Huh?” I believe was my reaction in real time.

I’ve come to learn I wasn’t alone on that one.

Just strange. It’s not like he was going to save an arm. Ronald Acuña was coming to the plate no matter what, so Jeff Hoffman was going to be in the game anyway. The change came a batter too late and Duvall delivered a game-tying double. Bizarre decision.

The Eighth Inning: Crazy Bad

Obviously, the eighth inning got completely out of hand. You just don’t expect an opponent to hang a seven-spot when your best reliever starts the frame in a tie game, but…that’s what happened. Alvarado couldn’t locate, particularly on the inner half to right-handers. He threw just 15 of 30 pitches for strikes.

After the Braves built a 4-2 lead on an Acuña RBI single, Thomson then went to Connor Brogdon, thus ending the competitive portion of the game. Brogdon promptly uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch and walked a pair of batters before Olson cleared the bases to make it 9-2.

A reminder: We tend to shrug off injuries to the fringes of the roster, but you saw the impact such injuries can have today. With Orion Kerkering and Taijuan Walker both out, those absences significantly alter the bullpen composition. Spencer Turnbull gets bumped into the rotation, so now there’s two spots to fill. You better have some depth. That depth was tested in game one and it’s safe to say it did not pass.

Of course, you may be asking yourself, “Why the hell was Brogdon in the game in the first place? How about Gregory Soto? Or anyone else?” Fair questions, but there’s an acceptable answer. It’s possible both Alvarado and Strahm will be unavailable Saturday. Once the game gets to 4-2, do you want Thomson to roll the dice on using his only other lefty in a game the Phillies now trail by multiple runs late, potentially leaving nothing from that side for Saturday? That’s a hedge I can live with.

The issue wasn’t that Brogdon struggled, the issue was that Strahm and Alvarado struggled. Maybe it’s a sign of what will become a recurring issue. Or maybe it’s as simple as two key guys didn’t have it and then the context of the inning allowed it to escalate to a full-on shit show. Maybe it’s no more complicated than that.

Nothing Doing at the Top

The Phillies were tasked with facing one of the game’s best starting pitchers in Strider. Atlanta, as you saw, also has a formidable group of bullpen arms to match against Phillies hitters, so it’s no surprise they didn’t exactly have a banner day at the plate. But that’s the deal — want to cut down on a 14-game gap this season? Gotta find a way. They didn’t in game one. In fact, the Phillies’ first four hitters went a combined 0-for-14 with two walks and seven strikeouts.

Waiting Him Out

It’s hard to give the lineup much praise following a game in which it produced just five hits and three runs, but the Phillies put together some better at-bats in the fourth and fifth innings against Strider. He needed only 39 pitches to dispose of the Phillies through three innings, but two innings later, they had him out of the game after 90 pitches.

Other Observations

  • A predictably excellent start by Wheeler. We’re almost at the point where six scoreless innings against the sport’s most powerful offense is expected. He generated whiffs on 18 of 53 swings and 63 of his 89 pitches went for strikes. He worked out of one tough spot and otherwise spent the game totally in command. As for the new splitter, he worked it into his mix seven times.

  • Marsh got him, for sure, but Strider was outstanding. Several Phillies were totally off balance throughout. He generated 18 whiffs of 46 swings, and his slider was particularly nasty. The Phillies swung and missed on a staggering 11 of 16 swings against it.
  • Despite failing to score early, I liked the Braves’ plan against Wheeler in the first two innings. Lots of first-pitch swings. Last season, opposing batters were 31-for-82 (.378 BA) with a .947 OPS against Wheeler on the first-pitch. Acuña (102.1 mph), Olson (102.6 mph) and Austin Riley (104.7 mph) put together good swings, but the Phillies’ defense helped Wheeler get through the first clean before he settled in.

  • It was an especially good job by Wheeler to bail out Trea Turner after the shortstop’s fifth-inning error. It forced Wheeler into a two-out matchup against Acuña with the go-ahead run at third. As far the error goes, shit happens, right? But with increased focus on Turner’s defensive game and his overall start, that’s not what you want to see. Frankly, he might not have an easier play this season.
  • Not much else good to write about after this one, so let’s check in on old friend Rhys Hoskins. He was up at Citi Field reconnecting with his old friends, the Mets.