Braves’ Opening Day romp against Phillies offers a look back at last October and a reminder of Atlanta’s power

By | March 30, 2024

PHILADELPHIA – The Atlanta Braves returned to their hall of horrors and didn’t flinch.

Each year for the past two Octobers, Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia has hosted the final game of the Atlanta season. For two consecutive years, the Braves have been forced to spend their winter retreat with unsavory memories of this place and the team that has their playoff number. No season win at Citizens Bank Park will slay the demons – the Braves know all too well that legends are born in the fall – but Atlanta’s 9-3 thrashing of the Phillies on opening day was encouraging for the visitors nonetheless.

“You know, I would have preferred to have done it five months ago,” Braves ace Spencer Strider told reporters after the game when asked if he enjoyed pitching well in the hostile environment, “but every game is at this moment important.”

The first game of the season for these teams was billed as a showdown between two of the game’s best pitchers: Strider versus Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler. Both were predictably great, the only blemish on their combined resumes being a two-run shot in the fifth inning that Strider surrendered to Philadelphia’s left fielder and most humid caveman, Brandon Marsh. Wheeler allowed a handful of well-hit balls, but didn’t let a Brave hit home, striking out five during his six innings of work.

That Marsh home run, which broke a scoreless tie and sent the home crowd into a frenzy, came on one of Strider’s only errors of the afternoon. The mustached right-hander was otherwise phenomenal. He seamlessly blended a brand new curveball into his already stocked arsenal, striking out eight in the process. But when Strider left the game two after five, with a well-stocked Phillies bullpen waiting in the wings, it brought back memories of his postseason exploits on this ground — complete and utter brilliance marred by an ill-timed long ball.

In fact, much of the scene Friday at Citizens Bank Park resembled that of last October. It all starts with the continuity on the diamond. Because even though an entire offseason has passed since their last confrontation, the characters have barely changed. As many as 17 of the 18 position players who started the 2023 NLDS Game 4 were in the lineup Friday; Jarred Kelenic was the only new face.

And for five innings, the whole thing felt like NLDS Game 5 from 2023. A packed house of drunken, bundled-up Philadelphians screaming their throats dry; the extended playoff-style pregame introductions, replete with a fighter jet flyover; the crowd’s rhythmic chants of “STRI-DER, STRI-DER,” mocking the Braves’ ace as he prepared for key situations; the incessant cheering of sports villain Ronald Acuña Jr. and Orlando Arcia of Philadelphia; and of course the mountain of noise that erupted around the yard as Marsh’s go-ahead homeward went over the fence in left center of the field.

But that’s where the similarities ended.

Marsh’s big swing turned out to be the only runs of the day for the Phillies. Once Wheeler was pulled, Atlanta pounced on a rusty-looking Phillies bullpen. That pen, full of many of the same relievers from the past two seasons, capitulated completely and without pause. The normally reliable left-handed duo of Matt Strahm and José Alvarado combined for seven runs and three total outs. A timely Adam Duvall doubled the score to two in the seventh, before Atlanta exploded for a seven spot in the eighth behind RBI singles from Acuña and Michael Harris II. Matt Olson’s base-clearing doppelgänger – his third of the day, on his birthday, no less – was the nail in the coffin, sending the no longer rowdy Philadelphians down the aisles to the exits and beyond.

The entire game was a phenomenal reminder that these Braves are just as talented and formidable as any other recent, wildly successful Braves team. They employ the defending NL MVP and the favorite for NL Cy Young. The lineup is frighteningly deep, even with the unfortunate loss of Sean Murphy, who will miss time on the injured list after taxing his oblique Friday with an innocuous-looking swing. The rotation is led by Strider and Max Fried and supported by a pair of reliable, hard-hitting vets: Charlie Morton and Chris Sale.

And Atlanta’s bullpen — which, unlike Philadelphia’s, delivered the goods — looks as loaded as ever. Scoreless frames from Joe Jimenez, Pierce Johnson and AJ Minter pointed to this unit ranking as one of the best in the league, something that is sure to change over the long season but still bodes well for Atlanta’s inevitable playoff appearance.

The Braves are guaranteed to play six more games in Philadelphia this year – two more this weekend and four on a return trip in August. None of these regular season games will completely crush the bad memories that rattle around in the minds of Braves players when they enter this arena; killing October dragons requires October glory. But Atlanta’s opening day performance showed that the Braves are clearly extremely capable of upsetting the Phillies — or anyone else for that matter — in the fall.

If the baseball gods shine down on us, these two teams will collide for the third time in a row. The Braves, whether they say it openly or not, would certainly relish the opportunity to upset their foes on their turf in the playoffs. Aside from last October’s displays, Atlanta’s players and managers insist they enjoy participating in the deafening cauldron that is Citizens Bank Park.

Strider gets it. He knows he and his team attract vitriol in this cutthroat city because they are exceptionally good at baseball.

Strider said after the game, “They don’t cuss anybody out.”

And the Braves are certainly no nobody.

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