By Connor Thomas
In case you weren’t caught up in the baseball fever that overtook the Delaware Valley over the weekend, here’s your update: the Phillies neutralized one of the supposed better teams in baseball over their opening 3 game series, sweeping the Atlanta Braves. They held the Braves to 3 total runs over the series, had 8+ hits in each of the games, and got stellar starting pitching from their top 3 arms in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin. But looking back at the very strong opening effort from the Phils, there were some unlikely heroes that I believe played the biggest role in the 3 game winning streak to start the season. No, it wasn’t Andrew Knapp, who hit the only homerun of the series in yesterday’s 2-1 win. It wasn’t Roman Quinn, who threw out the go ahead run in extra innings on opening day, or Jean Segura, the 7 hole hitter who walked off that game with an RBI single. Yes, the Phillies had some role players that stepped up over the 3 game series, but there were a couple of guys in red and white pinstripes (and cream home alternate unis yesterday) that rose to the occasion in huge spots.
The new and improved Philadelphia bullpen was nothing short of outstanding in the team’s first 3 games of the season, in some spots where the 2020 pen could only dream of having success. First, on opening day, a 2-2 ball game in the 7th inning was turned over to the relievers, and the combination of Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris, and Connor Brogdon contributed 3.1 innings of shutout, 1 hit, 0 run baseball. Brogdon also received the first win of the season in that contest with some help from the aforementioned Quinn outfield assist. Game 2 required a lighter work load, thanks to Wheeler’s dominant 7 inning, 1 hit, 0 run start, but the bullpen was still tasked with 2 innings of work in a 4 run game. Sure, 4 run games don’t often feel like they’re imminent danger, but last year’s bullpen turned 4+ run leads into heart attacks with regularity. Bradley and Neris each got an inning of work, and they both picked up where Wheeler left off, not allowing a hit, run, or even a baserunner in the 8th and 9th innings.
Yesterday’s rubber match had the least amount of run support, which, of course, improves the level of difficulty for the pitching staff. And yet, it didn’t seem to matter to the firemen of this year’s relief unit. Eflin, who started yesterday, gave up a home run to Travis d’Arnaud in the 7th to tie the game at 1, then turned the game over to Jose Alvarado in the 8th. The new offseason addition from the Tampa Bay Rays, who regularly touched triple digits during his two outings in the series, threw a perfect 8th inning to add to his scoreless effort on Thursday. 2nd year 3rd baseman Alec Bohm was able to give the Phillies a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the frame, leaving the game in the hands of the new closer, same as the old closer. Hector Neris, who had already seen a high leverage situation in a tied 9th inning on Thursday, lacked command yesterday, but ultimately overcame his 2 walks to blank the Braves and secure the team’s first save of the season. Sure, it wasn’t the performance you want from a closer, but you can’t argue with the result.
When the dust settled Sunday afternoon, not only were the Phillies 3-0 on the young season, but the bullpen had pitched a spotless 7.1 innings, giving up 0 runs, 1 hit(!!!), and 4 walks. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to calculate the unit’s ERA through their first 3 games: a perfect 0.00. Just for fun, what was last year’s bullpen ERA through the first 3 games? A whopping 7.23, and that was against the Miami Marlins, not the vaunted Braves. Many thought the bullpen would be improved this season, I mean, how could it not be? But few had them getting off to this strong of a start. If this unlikely turnaround proves to be a season-long trend, Philadelphia could be in for an exciting summer on the diamond.