Before the implosion of the Phillies’ bullpen in a 9-3 Opening Day loss to the Atlanta Braves, the storyline was the marquee matchup between starting pitchers Spencer Strider and Zack Wheeler.

And why not? The duo is among the favorites to be presented the Cy Young Award at season’s end as the best pitcher in the National League.

For six innings, the hype around that pitcher’s duel proved real.

Both guys were dealing, and neither of the imposing offenses they were facing were coming up with a playable hand.

In the end, neither got a decision. Wheeler left the game with the lead, but his bullpen couldn’t hold it, and by the time the Braves took the lead, Strider had already showered. But for those six innings, man, were you treated to some seriously good pitching.

Here were their pitching lines:

Strider: 5IP, 3H, 2R, 2ER, 2BB, 8K, 1HR

Wheeler: 6IP, 5 H, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 5K, 0HR

Wheeler gets the early lead in what could be a season-long race between the two jockeying for position to win the National League’s top pitching honor.

Strider was dominant early, throwing just 38 pitches through the first three innings and keeping Philadelphia off balance. But in the fourth, although the Phillies didn’t score, there started to be signs of a shift in approach.

It’s as if both teams were attacking each other the same way – trying to swing early in counts early in the game to try to turn around fastballs and avoid the new pitches each guy had been working on.

For Strider, that new pitch is a variant of his slider. Kyle Schwarber said after the game that it’s “a little slower and a little more depth-y.”

Of his eight strikeouts, Strider got Nick Castellanos with it twice, and Schwarber and Alec Bohm with it once each. Additionally, seven of his eight punchouts came on pitches outside the strike zone, meaning the Phillies were probably a little chase-y, yeah?

As for Wheeler, he incorporated his new toy – a splitter – a bit more than expected. He said nothing surprises him because he just throws what catcher J.T. Realmuto calls, but then added that he threw “11-or-12” of them which might have been a few more than he anticipated.

StatCast credited him with only 10 splitters, but they were mostly effective.

Wheeler joked that he threw a couple of them to the backstop, but here were those 10 pitches per StatCast:

  • 2nd inning to Michael Harris II – ball
  • 2nd inning to Michal Harris II – Weak (59.4MPH) infield single down the third base line
  • 3rd inning to Ronald Acuna Jr. – swinging strike (strikeout pitch)
  • 3rd inning to Ozzie Albies – fouled off
  • 3rd inning to Ozzie Albies – soft (89.2MPH) line out to first base
  • 4th inning to Matt Olson – fouled off
  • 5th inning to Michael Harris II – ball
  • 5th inning to Jared Kelenic – soft (87 MPH) fielder’s choice ground out to second base
  • 6th inning to Ozzie Albies – weak (76.7 MPH) ground out to second.
  • 6th inning to Matt Olson – ball

Other than the strikeout pitch to Acuna, the other nine were all against lefties, and other than the two taken for balls, they were either fouled off or induced weak contact – against a team that doesn’t often have weak contact.

If it’s a pitch he’s going to throw about 11 percent of the time, as he did Friday, it’s going to keep hitters guessing as to if or when they might see it, and it should make Wheeler that much more effective.

It could be a difference maker in an epic Cy Young Race between two of the best pitchers in the game.

Other Notes from Opening Day

  • Before the game, manager Rob Thomson was quick to point out that the Phillies only have two off days the entire first month of the season. They play six days straight before an off day on April 4th, then 13 consecutive days before an off day on April 18th, followed by 13 more days of games before an off day on May 2nd. As such, he said to expect his bench guys to see more time than maybe they normally would in April.
  • On that same relative note, Thomson pointed out that the next three games the Phillies are expecting to face left-handed starters. Whit Merrifield should see some time, and maybe even Cristian Pache.
  • The Phillies had really nice defensive plays early in the game from Bohm and Byrce Harper, but then Trea Turner made a brutal error on a routine grounder and Brandon Marsh didn’t get the best jump on a fly ball to the left-centerfield wall that would have been a tough catch anyway, but was made impossible by his late arrival. Even another single on a play that got past a diving Bryson Stott was one we’ve seen him make plenty of times last season. Defense didn’t cost them the game. But other than those two early plays, it didn’t help either.
  • The Phillies struck out 15 times in the game. Rob Thomson on that afterwards: “We’re gonna strike out some, but that’s a little bit much.” You don’t say.
  • Bob covered this in his instant observations, but consider me also in the camp of those who questioned Thomson’s decision to not got to Jeff Hoffman when the Braves turned to Adam Duval as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning, resulting in the double that scored the go-ahead runs. For his part, Thomson said this, “We knew they were going to pinch hit and we didn’t mind the matchup. He (Matt Strahm) just hung a breaking ball.
  • One more bullpen note – Connor Brogdon came in in the eighth inning and threw 24 pitches, only 11 of them for strikes. His first pitch was a wild pitch that allowed a run to score. He walked two guys, one of them walked in a run. It was a horrible outing by a guy who is out of options and only made the Opening Day roster because of injuries to Taijuan Walker and Orion Kerkering. He’s definitely on a short leash. Thomson wasn’t too happy with his outing either. “I mean, he’s got to be able to throw strikes,” the manager said. “That’s for sure. And land his changeup. We’ve got some work to do there.”