'We've got 161 more': Bullpen spoils Wheeler's gem

March 30th, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies fielded so many questions this spring about fast starts and slow starts, and what they can do to play better the first couple months of the season.

They want to play better because they want to win the National League East.

They want to beat the Braves, and then, hopefully, win it all.

The Phillies have 161 games to go, but on Opening Day on Friday at Citizens Bank Park, they blew a two-run lead in the seventh inning before unraveling in the eighth in a 9-3 loss to Atlanta. It spoiled a goosebump-inducing first pitch from former Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, who survived a stroke six months ago; a gem from Phillies ace Zack Wheeler, who threw six scoreless innings in the first Opening Day start of his career; and Brandon Marsh’s two-run home run against Braves ace Spencer Strider in the fifth.

“It’s Game 1, Start 1,” Wheeler said, offering perspective.

It explains why Wheeler’s afternoon ended after six splendid innings. He threw 66 pitches in his final Grapefruit League start last week. He threw 89 pitches on Friday.

Wheeler was not going to push 100 pitches after not coming close in Florida.

“I’m going to take care of him,” manager Rob Thomson said.

Wheeler seemed to understand.

“You don’t want to press on the gas too much, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s a long season, so he’s got to keep that in mind.”

Besides, the Phillies have what is expected to be one of baseball’s best bullpens. Certainly, it had a chance at holding a two-run lead.

Matt Strahm, one of Thomson’s most-trusted relievers last season, started the seventh. He allowed a leadoff single to Michael Harris II, then a one-out double to Orlando “Atta Boy” Arcia, whose postgame comments following Game 2 of the 2023 NL Division Series sparked Bryce Harper’s iconic two-home run performance in Game 3.

Marsh had a shot at catching the ball at the wall, but it sailed just inches above his glove.

“I had a bead on it,” Marsh said. “The ball just kept carrying a little bit. The scoreboard was blocking that wind. It just kept going.”

Thomson let Strahm face Adam Duvall with right-hander Jeff Hoffman ready in the bullpen. Duvall hit a pinch-hit two-run double to tie the game.

Things got worse in the eighth. José Alvarado faced seven batters, but five reached safely and two scored to give Atlanta a 4-2 lead. Connor Brogdon entered with the bases loaded and two outs. Brogdon, who spent most of last season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, uncorked a wild pitch and walked two batters before he allowed a bases-loaded double to Matt Olson that cleared the bases.

A 2-0 lead in the seventh turned into a 9-2 deficit in the eighth.

It was the first time the Phillies' bullpen allowed nine runs in a game since May 2 last season. It was the first time they allowed seven runs in an inning since May 5, 2022, when James Norwood and Corey Knebel allowed seven runs in the ninth inning in an unforgettable 8-7 loss to the Mets.

Friday wasn’t that bad.

But it will be remembered because it happened on Opening Day against the Braves.

“No excuses,” Alvarado said.

Friday was the first game the Phillies played at the Bank since they lost Game 7 of the 2023 NL Championship Series against the D-backs. It was an unforgettable ending for a team that seemed destined to win a World Series. The Phillies brought back almost everybody from that team because they believe they have the talent to win it all. They know they could make another deep run in October as an NL Wild Card winner -- they beat the Braves in the NLDS as a Wild Card in each of the past two postseasons -- but they prefer to win the division.

They would love to unseat the Braves, who have won six consecutive division titles.

“It’s a big challenge,” Marsh said. “I don’t need to say it, but that’s a really good ballclub over there. They’ve shown it year in and year out. But I’m not too worried about the division, to be honest. I mean, we’ve got 161 more to go.”

“A really good team over there,” Harper said. “But also, we’re a really good team, too. We were in position today to go 1-0, but we just didn’t get it done.”

The Phils play two more against the Braves this weekend.

“If we keep building, if we keep going the way that we want to, our future is bright,” Kyle Schwarber said. “It’s Day 1, now we’ve got to move on to Day 2.”

“It’s not the end of the world,” Wheeler said.