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A contrast in relief: Phillies vs. Braves series preview

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Either the Braves have assembled the best relief corps ever or some major regression is headed their way

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
It hasn’t been a great year for Freddie Freeman
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

This weekend brings us the first series of the season between the Phillies and those perennial playoff chokers from Cobb County Atlanta. While I had some fun during the pandemic reviewing some of the Bravespast failures in the postseason, its nice to once again be able to rag on the current team.

And how about that current team? They’re off to a decent start, but there are reasons to believe that they aren’t going to be able to keep it up. A different writer might call their place in the standings unsustainable, but I’ve already been down that road.

Atlanta Braves

Record: 9-5 (Second in National League East)

Manager: Brian Snitker

The last time they met

The Phillies visited Truist Park in mid-September 2019 and won two out of three. That gave the Phillies the advantage in the season series and definitively proved that they were the superior of the two teams.

Current status

The standings don’t make all that much sense right now, but I think the Braves are in second place. They’ve played the most games out of any team in the division, and by the time we wrap the season up, the powers that be might just say that’s enough to give them the division crown.

Let’s talk about the Braves’ rotation

The Braves’ record is a bit surprising because their starting rotation does not appear to be a strength. Cole Hamels may never end up throwing a pitch for the team, and Mike Soroka will miss the remainder of the season with an injury. That means they’ll have to lean more on the likes of Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Sean Newcomb, and Mike Foltynewicz. The lowest ERA among that foursome is Toussaint’s 6.08

You might be thinking that Foltynewicz was pretty good a couple of years ago...and he was! He made the All-Star team in 2018, and the Braves thought they had a solid young pitcher on their hands. But the most notable thing he’s done since then is give up seven runs in one third of an inning in the ultimate game of the 2019 NLDS. This season, he picked up right where he left off, allowing six runs in three innings of his only start thus far.

So then how are they winning games?

You know how it seems like every time a Phillies reliever enters the game something bad happens? The Braves’ bullpen has been the exact opposite of that. The core group of Mark Melancon, Josh Tomlin, Luke Jackson, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, and Shane Greene has pitched a combined 35 innings and only given up two earned runs. Two! Now compare that to the Phillies’ bullpen where Nick Pivetta gives up two runs in two innings, and we actually find it kind of encouraging.

I’m going to make a bold prediction here and say there’s no way the Braves can keep that up. Even the deepest bullpen is going to suffer if the rotation can’t deliver quality starts on a regular basis. And while I will concede that the Braves’ group is superior to what the Phillies are running out there, I am skeptical that there’s truly the gulf that an ERA difference of over 5.00 would indicate. In other words, the Phillies are probably due for a couple of angst free evenings, while the Braves likely have some Tommy Hunter-style meltdowns in their future.

Spotlight on: Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman isn’t having the greatest year. Earlier in the summer, he was genuinely concerned for his life. Thankfully, he recovered from that and has returned to the field. But its tough to call that return successful at the moment.

Freeman is batting just .217 with two home runs through the first 14 games. Is this just a random slow start to the season? Is his poor hitting related to his illness? Or like many large-bodied first baseman, has he begun to decline now that he’s on the wrong side of 30?

Thus far, the Braves have compensated for his sub-standard hitting thanks to surprisingly good showings from the likes of Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall. But the Braves’ lineup was built around Freeman. If he can’t deliver in the way they’re accustomed to, the team is going to suffer.

Reason for pessimism

The scheduled starter for Friday is Vince Velasquez. Considering Velasquez’s career 5.20 ERA against the Braves, and Hector Neris will presumably be unavailable, that means the Phillies will likely need at least four innings of relievers who are not Neris to get through the game.

Reason for optimism

Velasquez will be opposed by Kyle Wright who is 0-4 with a 9.13 ERA as a starter over his career. We’re very likely going to get a quick look at just how far apart these two bullpens really are.

Prediction

The Phillies just split four games with a much better team. It seems to me that they should be able to win three out of four against a team with some glaring rotation issues.