A 1-2 start against the Atlanta Braves could have been a lot worse, but should it have been a lot better?

That’s the question we’re left asking after a weekend filled with plenty of in-game decisions that have sparked debate online, on talk radio, and yes, even amongst the gathered press, who were scrambling to look up a new MLB rule just seconds before manager Rob Thomson walked into a press conference.

The questions may have been harsher, or the analysis more pointed, had not the Phillies had an Easter Sunday resurrection in the bottom of the seventh inning to defeat the Braves 5-4 for their first win of the season. And yes, it’s just one series in March, but in a year of such high expectations – set by the organization itself – every decision, every lineup, every pitching change, every pinch-hitting scenario is going to be under the microscope even more.

Fair or not, that’s going to be Rob Thomson’s existence for the seven months or so. He’s not the kind of guy who is going to crack under this scrutinous pressure, but at the same time, it’s justified, at least within reason.

Just like the overconfident fans predicting a Phillies domination of the Braves and the season in general was a bit ridiculous, trashing the team after losing the first two is also theater of the absurd, even for a generally overreactive fanbase like here in Philadelphia.

It comes with the territory. You get as close as this team has gotten to bringing home a big prize as they have in the past two seasons, this is what follows.

Considering that in the last 50 years there have been only six parades in the city for all five professional sports teams in town and compare that to the only cities that rival Philadelphia in terms of having the most passionate fans in sports, Boston (17 parades) and New York (18, not including three for the New Jersey Devils, which basically have the same fans as other New York sports teams), and you can understand why when the expectation level rises, the magnifying glasses also get larger.

So we want to look at Thomson’s most curious decisions from the first weekend and discuss them here. Who knows, maybe this will be a regular thing here on Crossing Broad. Let’s see how it turns out.

I will highlight the decision, discuss what may or may not have been the reasoning for it, provide input from the manager, where applicable, and then offer a verdict on whether it was a good decision or a bad one.

Lets start with Opening Day and work our way forward:

1. Pulling Zack Wheeler after 89 pitches and six shutout innings

Wheeler was excellent on Opening Day, and actually outdueled Atlanta ace Spencer Strider. He gave up a few hits, but nothing that did any damage, and it’s likely that were it not still March, he would have had a longer leash. While there are many (me included) who think the sport of baseball has completely devalued the role of a starting pitcher thanks to pitch counts, openers, bullpen games and other forms of load management, and that yanking a guy after six shutout innings is usually criminal, in this case, Thomson was right. Wheeler admitted himself that he was slightly behind on his build-up from Spring Training after missing a few days for the birth of his kid. Had he not had that happen, he likely would have been good to go one more inning. Instead, he knew 90 pitches was going to be his max and couldn’t quite stretch that many pitches to seven innings. Of course, the bullpen came in and imploded – an uncharacteristic outcome for a bullpen rated as MLB’s best. Had that not happened, Thomson likely wouldn’t have garnered much criticism for pulling Wheeler. Alas…

Verdict: Obviously you can’t say it was the “right move” because it didn’t work out, but was Thomson justified in making the move? Yes. Absolutely. Starters typically don’t pitch long in their first start of the season anymore. If they give you five innings, you’re thrilled. Welcome to 2024. This isn’t one to harp on Topper about.

2. Leaving Matt Strahm in to face Adam Duvall in the seventh inning on Opening Day

Strahm became one of their most reliable bullpen arms last season, this after saving their bacon as a fifth starter to start the season. He had such a good spring as well that the Phillies signed him to a contract extension. He’s equally good against both lefthanded and righthanded batters, so the Phillies don’t mind deploying him in any situation. But on Opening Day there was an opportunity to help Strahm, and Thomson chose not to. To set this up further, in the sixth inning, which Wheeler pitched through, both Strahm and Jeff Hoffman were warming up, in case Wheeler gave up baserunners and exceeded beyond those 90 pitches. When Wheeler got out of it, Strahm was the only reliever who continued to get loose, while the Phillies batted, meaning he was starting the inning. It made sense because the next inning was scheduled to start with the left-handed Michael Harris II, and then you got to the less-imposing part of the bottom of the Braves lineup. Harris led off with a single, but Strahm then struck out the combination of Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud. Murphy injured himself on a swing, and had to be replaced mid-at bat by d’Arnaud, which is always a very difficult situation for the pinch hitter. During this time, the Phillies got Hoffman up again – likely prepping him to face the top of the Braves lineup. But then Orlando Arcia ripped a double off Strahm. Now the tying runs were in scoring position with one out and the Braves sent up Duvall to pinch hit for Jarred Kelenic. Duvall, a righty, is notoriously tough on lefty pitchers. But he’s not nearly as effective against righties. Hoffman was good to go, but Thomson stuck with Strahm. Duvall ripped a double to left field, tying the game. When asked about it afterwards, Thomson said they knew the Braves were going to pinch hit for Kelenic, and after talking again about managing pitchers early in the season because some guys are not yet ready to pitch on consecutive days, Thomson said, “We just liked (Strahm’s) pitches against Duvall.”

Verdict: He should have gone to Hoffman. I get it that you have to manage pitchers to ensure their durability and reliability as a season progresses. But it’s Opening Day. Everyone should be available and ready to perform. Not only that, you are playing the Braves. If you think you can hunt them down to win the N.L. East, you have to beat them when you play them. You won’t see them again until July. Who knows what the division race will look like then? This should have been an easy call. He tried to get Strahm through one more batter and then would have had Hoffman for Ronald Acuna Jr. It didn’t work.

3. Letting Jose Alvarado go far too long in the eighth inning on Opening Day

There’s no doubt Alvarado is your best reliever. His stuff is filthy. But, it was clear pretty quickly he wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be on Opening Day. Leading off the inning, he gave up a double to Matt Olson, who, as good as he is, his weakness is facing power lefties. After getting Marcel Ozuna to fly out, Harris got another hit off him. Seeing two lefties get him right away should have been an indicator, but then he walked d’Arnaud. That should have been enough. He then struck out Arcia but again it came to Duvall against a lefty. Not a great matchup. At this point, there was no sign of either Seranthony Dominguez or Gregory Soto warming up. They were obviously being saved for the next day. But, sometimes you need to manage in the moment and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Instead, it was Connor Brogdon who was asked to get loose. Alvarado walked Duvall, which brought in the fourth run and extended the Braves lead to 4-2. And then, obviously on fumes as he was throwing his 30th pitch of the inning, Alvarado gave up a single to Acuna, and it was 5-2. Finally he was lifted, and Brogdon couldn’t throw strikes. Four more runs would score and essentially, the ball game was over.

Verdict: Again, it’s Opening Day. Everyone should be available, but they weren’t. Thomson leaned hard on Alvardo and his usually reliable horse on the back end faltered. There was no lifeline for him and the game got out of hand when a pitcher who likely wasn’t going to even make the team without a couple late injuries, was called upon and imploded. Dominguez should have been available for the Arcia-Duvall-Acuna pocket. He wasn’t, and it let a game that was within reach get out of hand.

4. Leaving Aaron Nola in to get shelled on Saturday

There’s a lot that can be said about Nola’s start. When it comes to counting stats, it was one of the worst starts of his career. He allowed seven runs and 12 hits in just 4 1/3 innings. Some of it was bad luck, sure. There was some real weak contact that resulted in infield hits, bleeders, and seeing-eye singles. And yeah, the pitch to Ozzie Albies that was hit for a home run was a really good pitch that Albies went and got. However, others hit him hard. The pitch to Matt Olson for his home run was not a good one. And Nola didn’t generate much swing and miss at all. Braves starter Max Fried was also experiencing a similar outing where he just didn’t have his stuff. The difference is Atlanta manager Brian Snitker pulled Fried after facing just seven batters and throwing 43 pitches. He was comfortable going to his long man in the first inning. Thomson was not. Nola gave up two in the first, three in the second, and two more in the third. Thomson could have pulled Nola after two but decided to try and get as much length as possible from him. It turned a close game into a rout.

Verdict:  Considering there was a little bit of bad luck involved this one isn’t too egregious. It’s understandable why you would trust Nola to work through a tough game against the Braves – a team Nola has had some success against. Couple that with not wanting to roll through a shortened bullpen, and Nola should have been able to find something to give you a little more length and consistency than he did. It’s not like turning the game over to Luis Ortiz to start the third inning would have made you feel better about a comeback win than sticking with Nola. This is one that reeks of no option being a good one, and Thomson going with the one based off of knowing his pitchers and their histories – especially against this lineup – makes this call understandable.

5. Easter Sunday lineup

There was a real social media meltdown when the lineup was announced and there was no Bryce Harper, no Bryson Stott and no Brandon Marsh. The Phillies were literally starting a game with Edmundo Sosa, Cristian Pache and Johan Rojas as the bottom three guys in the lineup – against the Braves. Pregame, Thomson said it was a scheduled day off for Harper. The Phillies obviously don’t think Marsh can hit lefties and pulling Stott against certain hard-throwing lefties is still as perplexing as it was a season ago. It makes sense if you need a day off that you schedule it for a game against a tough lefty, but not three games into the season. Afterwards, Thomson said Harper was sore from falling into the camera well when chasing a pop up on Saturday and was unavailable. After that Harper said it was just a day off and the hard tumble had nothing to do with him not playing. Which is it?

Verdict: It’s hard to criticize a lineup in a game the team won, right? Stott and Marsh eventually got into the game, so it worked out. If they had lost, this would certainly be a hot topic on the talk radio airways this week. The more curious thing is the Harper story that doesn’t seem straight. I’m fine with the lineup – it’s just one lineup for one day – but I can’t say that not having the message in sync is something anyone should feel good about.

6. Pitching to Duvall (again) in the fourth inning Sunday

I know, we’re treating Duvall like he’s Babe Ruth all of the sudden, but the reality is the guy always seems to wreak havoc against lefties. Here were the Phillies, down a run in the fourth inning with a lefty (Ranger Suarez) on the mound and Duvall striding to the plate. The scenario was Austin Riley on second base with two outs. Behind Duvall was Harris. Suarez has owned Harris in their short careers. Why not intentionally walk – or at least pitch around Duvall and go lefty-on-lefty against Harris? You likely save your pitcher a handful of pitches as well with the free pass, and maybe that helps you get one extra inning out of him, especially with how much the bullpen was used in the first two games. Duvall laced a single to left and another run scored giving the Braves a 3-1 lead.

Verdict: This was a real miss, in my estimation, by Thomson. It didn’t come up in conversation because the Phillies came back and won the game, but this was an opportunity to limit the Braves from scoring another run and it could have been avoided. I know the Phillies aren’t big on using the intentional walk as a strategy, but it does tend to work when deployed. Not saying it needs to happen all the time – but here and there it can give you a solid advantage and help your pitchers out.

7. Pinch hitters in the seventh inning Sunday

This was a bit of a nuanced cat and mouse game. Braves reliever Joe Jimenez faced two batters in the bottom of the sixth. The Phillies were scheduled to have Sosa, Pache and Rojas bat in the seventh. Snitker sent Jimenez out to warm up to start the seventh despite having lefty Aaron Bummer ready and available out in the pen. A new rule in 2024 states that if a pitcher warms up to start an inning, he must face at least one batter before being removed from the game. Thomson sent up Stott to pinch hit for Sosa. He worked a walk. Then Thomson sent Marsh to bat for Pache. Snitker countered with Bummer. Marsh struck out. Rojas then seemed to hit into a double play to end the inning, but replay review showed he just beat the relay through and was safe at first. The Braves, who had left the field, had to come back out and the Phillies managed to get four consecutive hits and plate three runs to win the game. So, where’s the questionable decision? If you know Jimenez, a righty, has to face one batter, why not go with Marsh first? He’s not in the starting lineup because you don’t trust him against lefties, why not have him be the first guy to bat to ensure him against a righty and then if Snitker goes to Bummer for the second batter, you have Stott, and he’s better against lefties than Marsh? I asked Thomson about this and he said he wanted to make sure the pinch hitters were position-for-position. When I followed up on that answer, he indicated that it wasn’t a guarantee that he would pinch hit for Pache, and that it would have depended on the outcome of Stott’s at bat.

Verdict: It worked out, so Thomson gets a passing grade here. And it’s understandable that you don’t want to waste two players for one move if there was no guarantee that the second pinch hitter was going to be used. Still, if the Phillies are going to go with this platoon-type lineup sometimes, it’s worth keeping an eye out for this type of scenario in the future and consider what might be the best sequence of events in each individual situation to best maximize the lefty bats on the bench when they are there.