The Braves intend to win a fourth consecutive National League East title in 2021. There are numerous reasons to think they will, starting with a stacked lineup that includes NL Most Valuable Player Award winner Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr., a rotation that includes young studs Max Fried and Ian Anderson and veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, and a deep bullpen.
Atlanta’s pursuit of a four-peat begins Thursday against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
No NL East team has won four consecutive division titles since the Phillies won five consecutive titles from 2007-11.
That 2011 season just so happens to be the last time the Phillies made the postseason or even had a winning season. The Phillies hope that bringing back J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, plus a few tweaks to the rotation (Matt Moore and Chase Anderson) and bullpen (Archie Bradley, José Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler) is enough to give Atlanta a bit a run for its money.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch at Citizens Bank Park is set for 3:05 p.m. ET on Thursday. Braves fans can watch the game locally on Fox Sports South and listen on WCNN 680 The Fan or 93.7 FM. Phillies fans can tune in on NBC 10 and listen on 94 WIP. Out-of-market fans can watch on MLB.TV.
The starting lineups
Braves: With no designated hitter, Freeman will move back to the lineup’s third spot. He spent the final month of last year’s MVP season in the two hole, which can now be capably filled by Ozzie Albies. Acuña, Albies, Freeman and Marcell Ozuna give the Braves reason to boast of having a Nos. 1-4 lineup mix that can rival any in baseball. The quality depth of this lineup will be tested by whether Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley live up to their great potentials.
- Ronald Acuña Jr., RF
- Ozzie Albies, 2B
- Freddie Freeman,1B
- Marcell Ozuna, LF
- Travis d’Arnaud, C
- Dansby Swanson, SS
- Austin Riley, 3B
- Cristian Pache, CF
- Max Fried, LHP
Phillies: The Phillies tied for fifth in baseball in scoring last season and they believe they could be better this year. Andrew McCutchen finally looks healthy following ACL surgery in 2019. Alec Bohm will be in the lineup the entire year. He finished second for NL Rookie of the Year. They also have Bryce Harper, who, believe it or not, might have been a little unlucky last season, even though he put up big numbers.
- Andrew McCutchen, LF
- J.T. Realmuto, C
- Bryce Harper, RF
- Rhys Hoskins, 1B
- Alec Bohm, 3B
- Didi Gregorius, SS
- Jean Segura, 2B
- Roman Quinn, CF
- Aaron Nola, P
Who are the starting pitchers?
Braves: Max Fried will be making his first Opening Day start and the first by a Braves left-hander since Tom Glavine in 2002. Fried went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA last year and finished fifth in NL Cy Young Award balloting. His rise to frontline starter has been expedited by the development of his slider, a pitch he began using at the start of his 17-win, 2019 season. He allowed just one run over 10 innings against the Phillies last year.
Phillies: Aaron Nola is making his fourth consecutive Opening Day start, the most by a Phillies’ pitcher since Steve Carlton started 10 consecutive Opening Days from 1977-86. Nola has a 15.5 WAR the past four seasons, according to FanGraphs. It ranks sixth among pitchers behind Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale and Justin Verlander.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Braves: Though the Braves haven’t assigned the closer’s role to a specific reliever, Will Smith will likely get a majority of the closing opportunities. Right-hander Chris Martin is one of the game’s top setup men, but he, too, could be used to close games on a night when Smith is asked to match up against a left-handed hitter in the seventh or eighth inning. Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter are two other left-handers who can be used in any high-leverage situation. This bullpen lost Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. But this is still a group that possesses multiple quality late-inning options.
Phillies: The Phils express optimism about their bullpen, which posted the highest bullpen ERA in 90 years in 2020. Offseason acquisitions like right-handers Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler and Sam Coonrod and left-hander José Álvarado give the Phillies a much different look. Remember, last season’s bullpen had a 7.06 ERA, allowing 146 earned runs in 186 innings. Had it matched the Tigers’ 25th ranked bullpen (4.94 ERA), it would have allowed 44 fewer earned runs over 60 games. It could have been enough of a difference to make the playoffs. In other words, if the Phillies improve even a little bit, it should help them immensely over a 162-game season.
Any injuries of note?
Who is hot and who is not?
Braves: It wasn’t necessarily a great Grapefruit League season for any of the Braves’ top hitters. Five of Acuña’s seven hits were home runs. Albies tallied only his second multi-hit game of the spring on Tuesday and Freeman tallied a .627 OPS over 45 plate appearances. But Freeman did tally three hits, including two doubles and a homer, in his final eight at-bats of the spring.
Phillies: Harper had a great spring. He batted .343 (12-for-39) with four home runs, eight RBIs, a .477 on-base percentage, .771 slugging percentage and 1.249 OPS. He tied for the team lead in homers and led the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS (minimum 15 at-bats).
Anything else fans might want to know?
• Freeman is making his 11th Opening Day start for the Braves. The only Braves with more are Hank Aaron (20), Chipper Jones (16), Eddie Mathews (15), Dale Murphy (13) and Rabbit Maranville (12).
• Freeman has hit two of his three Opening Day home runs against the Phillies. He hit one against Cole Hamels in 2013 and another off Hoby Milner in ‘19.
• Harper will start his third consecutive Opening Day for the Phillies in right field. The Phils haven’t had a right fielder make three straight season-opening starts since Jayson Werth from 2008-10.