In what turned out to be a disappointing 8-5 loss, a big sixth inning by the Phillies had a lot to like.
The inning started with Cesar Hernandez taking a 3-2 pitch from Julio Teheran out to right center field to put the Phillies up 2-0. It was the second straight season that Hernandez homered on Opening Day. Two outs later, Rhys Hoskins was hit by a pitch that just brushed his jersey and headed for first base. Hoskins then stole second and Aaron Altherr drew a walk to put runners on first and second with two outs and J.P. Crawford headed to the plate.
Braves manager Brian Snitker brought in left-hander Rex Brothers to face the left-handed hitting Crawford, who worked the count to 3-2 and stayed away from a couple of tough pitches. The 3-2 pitch missed badly and Crawford drew the walk to load the bases and get Maikel Franco to the plate.
In situations like this in the past, Franco was well known for swinging for the fences. In this case though, Franco put together a quality at bat and didn’t even appear to be tempted to swing at bad pitches and seemed to simply look to put the ball in play. A 3-1 pitch missed and Franco drew a walk to force in the Phillies third run of the game.
Snitker then went to right-hander Dan Winkler to face switch-hitting Andrew Knapp, who also put together a good at-bat. Knapp singled on a line drive to right on a 1-0 pitch that scored two runs and put the Phillies up to a 5-0 lead after their four-run sixth inning. Winkler then whiffed pitcher Aaron Nola to finish the inning.
Seeing three straight young players put together patient at-bats that extended an inning and produced three runs with two outs was a great sign. The most impressive of the at-bats was Franco’s walk. With a new stance, Franco looked more controlled at the plate with his swing and was able to lay off pitches away.
Living and dying by the numbers
Gabe Kapler has stressed playing the numbers and using analytics ever since he was hired as the Phillies manager. There’s nothing wrong with that. It makes a lot of sense. But guess what? Sometimes, you have to use your gut as a manager and that’s where the rookie made his first big mistake.
Nola cruised through five innings and had a 5-0 lead headed to the bottom of the sixth. Ender Inciarte led off the sixth with a double to center and Nola bounced back to get Ozzie Albies to hit a weak flyball to left field. Kapler had left-hander Hoby Milner warming in the bullpen and left-handed hitter Freddie Freeman coming to the plate. In six plate appearances against Milner, Freeman was 0-for-5 and had struck out twice. Kapler evidently knew that and went to Milner even though Nola had thrown just 68 pitches and hadn’t had to work out of any jams throughout the game. Freeman launched a 3-2 pitch to right field to cut the Phillies lead to 5-2. Milner did get the next hitter, also a left-hander, Nick Markakis. Luis Garcia then came on to finish the inning.
There was no reason to lift Nola in that situation. On the television broadcast, John Kruk mentioned that the talk was that Nola could have thrown as many as 100 pitches in the right situation after being stretched out in spring training.
With Nola out of the game, the bullpen was charged with going 3 2/3 innings. Milner allowed a run in 1/3 of an inning, but Garcia delivered a scoreless inning. Morgan gave up a leadoff home run to Ozzie Albies in the eighth and then walked lefty Freeman. Instead of going to Pat Neshek in relief of Morgan, Kapler brought in Edubray Ramos. It was announced following the game that Neshek is hampered by a lat strain and was unavailable to pitch.
Ramos walked Suzuki and a passed ball pushed a run across the plate, which was made worse by a throwing error on catcher Andrew Knapp. Ramos then faces Preston Tucker, who singled to score pinch-runner Peter Bourjos – a former Phillie – to tie the game. From there, Ramos retired the next two hitters, but the question still remains why Neshek wasn’t brought in to pitch in that situation.
The next puzzling thought came in the ninth inning. Hector Neris came on to start the inning as expected and gave up an infield single to Charlie Culberson to lead off the inning. Inciarte bunted him over to second and Neris got Albies to fly out to left. Again, as expected, Freeman was walked intentionally to bring Markakis to the plate. If Kapler loves to manage by the numbers, why did he leave Neris in to face Markakis, who is 7-for-14 against the Phillies closer. Markakis drove one out to right to win the game, scoring eight unanswered runs for an 8-5 win.