Not bad for Game No. 1, huh?
Yessir, that first Phillies victory of the 2021 season tasted pretty sweet on Thursday, with Jean Segura walking off the Atlanta Braves 3-2 in 10 innings. Aaron Nola shoved (well, right up until Pablo Sandoval shoved an 0-2 mistake fastball into New Jersey, anyway), the Phils made some sparkling plays in the field, specifically by Alec Bohm, Didi Gregorius, Roman Quinn and J.T. Realmuto, and at the end of the day, the Phillies are in FIRST PLACE IN THE NL EAST WHILE THE Atlanta Braves ARE IN LAST.
Too early to be watching the standings, you say? Let me live my life, please.
All were factors that led to the Phillies’ thrilling Opening Day victory in front of 8,800 people at Citizens Bank Park, but the thing Phils fans should feel best about was the part of the team that was its weakest link a season ago.
Folks, the bullpen did its job on Thursday and, at times, did so spectacularly. Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Connor Brogdon turned in 3.1 innings of scoreless relief and allowed just one hit with four strikeouts and two walks. It was especially important because, on a day where the wind was blowing in fiercely and Phils hitters had trouble putting runs on the board for Nola, the bullpen needed to keep the Braves off the board entirely and support their ace.
And that is exactly what they did.
Bradley came in and got the final out in the 7th. Alvarado threw two pitches at 100 mph, one more than all Phillies pitchers had thrown in the last two seasons combined, and most of his fastballs/sinkers were in the upper 90s, although he was erratic. Just 12 of his 21 pitches were strikes, as he allowed a hit, a walk, and hit a batter. He also made just about everyone at the plate uncomfortable. Alvarado appears to be some kind of hybrid between Aroldis Chapman, Mitch Williams and J.C. Romero, and harnessing that power will be the key to his success. But even unharnessed, raw stuff sometimes is enough, and the Phils’ bullpen just hasn’t had enough of it in recent seasons.
Jose Alvarado's strikeout pitch of Cristian Pache was 100.2 MPH and had 14 inches of downward movement and 16 inches of horizontal movement. Good luck.— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 1, 2021
Neris, who was named the closer by manager Joe Girardi earlier this week, pitched a scoreless 9th, thanks to a dynamite defensive play by Gregorius in shallow left field, and Brogdon, who himself can crank it up into the high 90s, had to deal with the “runner starts on 2nd rule in extra innings” rule but got left-handed slugger Freddie Freeman to ground to second and then forced a pop up from Marcell Ozuna to mid-center field that resulted in the Quinn-to-Realmuto put-out of Ozzie Albies that ended the 10th.
There have been too many games to count in which a solid-to-dominant start by Aaron Nola was wasted by a bullpen that couldn’t keep opposing teams from crossing the dish, but not on Thursday. For one game at least, the ‘pen kept the game tied until the offense could provide the heroics. And sure, it’s just one game, but just having relievers who have top shelf “stuff” at their disposal is a big deal, and something we haven’t seen since the Brad Lidge/Ryan Madson/Romero years.
It’s impossible to know if this bullpen can be good all season, and certainly they will have their share of slumps. All ‘pens do. But if the Phillies get competency out of their relief corps, they have a chance to be a playoff team. If they perform like they did on Thursday, the 2021 Phils are going to win a lot of close games and be in the hunt for the division title.
It was a good first step. Now they need only take 161 more.