More positives than negatives in Phillies' loss to Braves

ASSOCIATED PRESS Chase Utley was a double short of the cycle in Atlanta.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Chase Utley was a double short of the cycle in Atlanta.
Posted: April 03, 2013

ATLANTA - Anybody who thinks Monday night was a reason to panic hasn't been paying attention. In fact, if you are somebody who thinks Opening Night has some utility as a tea leaf for the rest of the season - which, almost without exception, it does not - the positives may have outweighed the negatives.

The second baseman with the creaky knees looked as strong as he did in his prime, knocking a 400-foot home run over the wall in dead center, taking an extra base on an RBI single, and stretching a double into a triple.

The new leadoff man with the mediocre on-base percentage looked comfortable in his role, connecting on a single and drawing an 11-pitch walk that later resulted in a run.

The new leftfielder reached base twice.

The warts? Sure, they cost the Phillies in a 7-5, season-opening loss to the Braves. But they are the warts, and we knew all along that they were going to be the warts, and on Monday night the starting pitching was not strong enough to overcome them. In 20 of Cole Hamels' 31 starts last season, four runs would have been enough to win the game. Against the Braves, they weren't. Hamels struggled with his location throughout the night, particularly with his cutter and curve. The result was too many fastball situations against a team that was constructed to destroy fastballs.

"They've got some strikeout guys, but at the same time too," manager Charlie Manuel said before the game, "I'd say good pitchers might give them some problems, but guys who are mediocre or finesse pitchers, they might score a lot of runs."

They say that hitters' swings will tell you all you need to know about the effectiveness of a pitcher's stuff on a given night. Against the Braves, it was the sound of the ball exploding off the bat that told the tale. Hamels allowed three home runs, two doubles and a couple of blistering singles while giving up five runs. By the sixth inning, he was out of the game, and that is a formula that just isn't going to work most nights.

No doubt, Manuel hopes it will work better than it did Monday, when Chad Durbin allowed two runs without recording an out to turn a 5-3 deficit into a 7-3 deficit. But Durbin is a 35-year-old reliever with an $850,000 salary who entered the game with a career ERA of 6.29 in the first month of the regular season. The Phillies did not spend a lot of money on the front of their bullpen because they already had spent a lot of money on the back end, and because they already had spent a lot of money on their rotation. Monday night, the rotation did not live up to its lofty price tag, and the back end of the bullpen spent the night the same way it spent plenty of them in 2012, wearing windbreakers while watching a close loss.

"We're going to be able to come back in games, I feel that way," Manuel said. "At the same time, we need to have things click for us. We need to play consistent baseball. Tonight, I feel like we did cut some runs down on the infield. They could've scored more. It was a good game, but at the same time we could never catch them."

In short, the Phillies are not built like the Braves, whose relatively anonymous rotation is bolstered by a deep bullpen and a lineup that can score runs in multiples. Atlanta is a far more dangerous team than many people have decided. The Diamondbacks' decision to trade outfielder Justin Upton, who connected on a solo home run off Hamels in the fifth inning, seems even more curious when you look at his birth date. He is only 8 days older than Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, who singled and drew a walk in his first game as an everyday major leaguer. Even without catcher Brian McCann, who is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the Braves boast five hitters who have averaged at least 20 home runs per season over the last 4 years. Three of them - Upton, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman - homered off Hamels.

Once upon a time, that was the way the Phillies operated. But those Phillies are older now, and their power production reflects that aging process. Apart from Chase Utley's home run and triple, the only extra-base hit came by way of a John Mayberry Jr. liner that snuck inside the third-base line. Still, they managed to score five runs.

The pivotal sequence came with one out in the fifth inning, when Hamels singled, Ben Revere drew the aforementioned 11-pitch walk, Jimmy Rollins singled to load the bases and Utley singled in two runs. With Ryan Howard at the plate and the Phillies trailing 4-3, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez called on lefty Luis Avilan, who struck out the first baseman for the pivotal second out. After intentionally walking Michael Young, Avilan coaxed Brown into an inning-ending groundout.

The season opener is one game out of 162. With the exception of Hamels' performance, what we saw was a pretty fair approximation of what we expected to see. Which means there are no new reasons to panic. Feel free to call that a victory.


On Twitter: @HighCheese

Blog: philly.com/HighCheese

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