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A brutal end to Phillies Opening Day originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The latest chapter of baseball’s most interesting current rivalry turned into a late-inning horror movie for the Phillies, who blew a two-run lead over the Braves and gave up seven in the eighth inning of a 9-3 loss.

The disappointing Opening Day result represented less than 1% of their schedule, it was against a team projected for triple-digit wins and an opposing starting pitcher who might be better than any other they face, but some of the themes that contributed to the Phillies’ 2023 NLCS collapse also factored into this one.

They chased … a lot. They swung at 40% of the pitches Spencer Strider threw outside the strike zone, then at half the non-strikes thrown by Joe Jimenez and Pierce Johnson, the first two relievers Atlanta used.

The Phillies expanded the zone far too frequently in their final five games last postseason, losing four of them as a series they appeared to have in hand slipped away because of over-aggressiveness as much as anything else.

A big focus this spring was plate selection. J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos, Johan Rojas, Bryson Stott, to a man, they all spoke in camp about the need to go after hittable pitches and lay off the ones that may look tempting but won’t consistently lead to quality contact. As always, it’s easier said than done.

The Phils’ only runs until the ninth inning came in the fifth when Brandon Marsh cut through the wind to blast a ball over the wall in left-center field for a two-run homer. Strider had been cruising to that point but the Phillies forced him to throw 34 pitches to chase him after five. Things were looking promising.

Zack Wheeler did his job in his first Opening Day start, holding the Braves off the board for six walk-free innings. He was removed after 89 pitches because it’s March 29 and most managers are cautious with their starters this time of year, especially ones that believe they’ll be managing deep into October.

The game changed in the seventh inning soon after the Phillies turned to a bullpen that was ranked last week by MLB Network as the best in baseball. Matt Strahm allowed a single and two doubles to three of the first four hitters he faced to tie the game. Jeff Hoffman entered with traffic on the basepaths but put out the fire.

The eighth inning was when the Braves did the bulk of their damage. Jose Alvarado simply didn’t have it. He allowed an RBI single but picked up a second out and was nearly out of the inning with just a one-run deficit. Then he walked pinch-hitter Adam Duvall to load the bases and Ronald Acuña Jr. followed with an RBI single. Alvarado was lifted for Connor Brogdon, who promptly threw a wild pitch.

Brogdon was one of the final relievers to make the team, but Alvarado is a crucial piece of this puzzle. The Phillies are hoping this was just a hiccup. The five earned runs will affect his ERA all season, but the important part is that he bounces back in his next few outings to regain confidence. The Phils can’t afford for things to snowball on Alvarado as they did earlier in his career before he became the money reliever he was in 2022 and 2023.

They’ll look to wipe the taste out of their mouths Saturday afternoon. Aaron Nola makes his season debut opposite Braves lefty Max Fried.

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