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Right now, on paper, the Phillies are better than the Braves

But games aren’t won on paper.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Last night’s 8-5 loss to the Braves wasn’t as crushing as previous 8-5 losses started by Aaron Nola in Atlanta, but it was a tough one to swallow, nonetheless.

After falling in a 2-0, 1st inning hole, the Phils fought back numerous times, and it looked for a moment as if they had taken the lead in the top of the 8th when Kyle Schwarber appeared to rip a two-out, two-run double into the right field corner to give them a 6-5 lead. Unfortunately, Nick Castellanos took an hour-and-a-half going from first-to-home in which the relay throw was sent in to 2nd base and then thrown home. After an umpire review, he was correctly ruled “out” after replay showed Braves catcher Sean Murphy applied the tag to his back leg as his front foot slid above home three inches off the ground.

Gregory Soto did his Jekyll and Hyde thing and, three meager outs later, the Phils started their four-game series with a dispiriting loss.

It felt like so many other defeats at Truist Park over the years, the Braves finding ways to win on their home turf, the Phillies pushing against an invisible force they simply cannot penetrate.

Give the offense credit. They tried, but couldn’t overcome yet another shaky outing from the confounding Aaron Nola, who allowed five runs on eight hits in six innings of uneven work...

...and a blowup from off-and-on reliever Gregory Soto, whose command issues resulted in three runs allowed in the bottom of the 8th.

The bad news is the loss pushed the Phillies 8 games behind Atlanta for first place in the NL East. The good news is if the Phils can win the next three games this weekend, they’ll be 6 games back, but let’s not ruminate on what happens if they’re swept.

The funny thing is, they’re actually catching the Braves at a good time, given injuries suffered by their left-handed ace Max Fried and 20-game winner Kyle Wright, both of whom have been on the shelf the last couple weeks and will not pitch in this series.

Thursday night’s match-up of Nola vs. Dylan Dodd should have favored the Phillies. In four starts, Dodd has a 6.64 ERA and a WHIP of 1.77. Even though Nola went deeper into the game than Dodd, it’s hard to argue Nola pitched any better.

Tonight, Taijuan Walker’s interesting 2023 journey takes another step, with he and his 5.79 ERA going up against 24-year-old Jared Shuster, who has made four starts and posted a 5.49 ERA. Even with Walker’s struggles, they didn’t sign him this off-season to lose to a inexperienced starter like Shuster.

On Saturday, their ace, Zack Wheeler faces Charlie Morton. who has been solid in his nine starts this year (3.61 ERA). Wheeler’s 4.11 ERA is inflated thanks to a bunch of soft-contact hits, but he also has not been the dominant arm we have come to expect.

It isn’t until Sunday, when the Phils will use a combination of Matt Strahm and Dylan Covey to try and match up against perhaps the best starter in the National League, Spencer Strider. But hey, maybe Strider will have some unpleasant memories dancing in his head from the last time he faced this group.

I just want to see this face again.

The Braves also have had to deal with a struggling A.J. Minter, who closed with Raisel Iglesias out and, in his absence, posted a 7.43 ERA in 24 appearances, allowing 11 hits per nine innings. He was responsible for the Phils’ 8th-inning rally that saw them draw even at 5-5 last night. Of course, with no Jose Alvarado in the ‘pen, the Phils are dealing with some volatility in their bullpen, but given the off-season acquisitions, they should have the advantage in games that are close and late.

On paper, the Phils’ lineup is every bit as talented as Atlanta’s. Kevin Gausman recently called it the deepest in the National League, and when you look at the names, it’s hard to argue.

As a team, the Phillies .259 batting average is better than Atlanta’s .256. Scwharber, Castellanos, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Trea Turner are all legitimate stars, and the Day Care guys are threats every time they step to the plate. It should be every bit as good as the Braves’ with Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Sean Murphy, Ozzie Albies, Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna.

The Braves should not be out-homering the Phillies 83-53 this year. They just should not be. There’s no reason for it. There is power in the Phils’ lineup, although early surges from Alec Bohm and Brandon Marsh have disappeared, Bohm’s dinger last night notwithstanding. Yes, they miss Rhys Hoskins, but it’s still a loaded offense even without him.

On paper, the Phillies are every bit as good as the Braves, but games are not played on paper, as the 8-game difference in the standings indicates. Following their 2022 playoff run, defeat of Atlanta in the NL Division Series, and off-season improvements, I believed the Phils would springboard over the Braves in the NL East. Or, at the very least, hang with them the entire season.

So far, the five-time defending division winners remain the class of the division, as the Phillies look up from the recesses of 4th place, hopes of a division title vanishing by the day.