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(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Phillies Improved Roster Yields Early Improved Results: 7th-Day Stretch

Jean Segura’s Opening Day walk-off single Thursday is just one of many reasons the Phillies have to smile in the very young 2021 season. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Welcome to a new series here on Vendetta Sports Media — you guessed it — about the Philadelphia Phillies. If you’ve followed our hockey coverage since the start of the year, you’re probably familiar with my Flyers Fan Reaction (FFR) series. Based on Steve Dangle’s well-known 14-year Leafs Fan Reaction (LFR) YouTube series, I’ve recapped every Flyers game over the last three seasons. I’ve seen some incredibly high-highs… and some incredibly low-lows.

The same applies to my Phillies fandom. Baseball became my first sports love when the Phillies won the 2008 World Series on my seventh birthday. While that fire dwindled during their long rebuild and their recent three-peat of September collapses, baseball, and the Phillies are still a joy to watch. And now, I’m ready to make them a joy to “cover”. Or at least try to. Welcome to the Seventh-Day Stretch, a weekly series covering the Phillies’ exploits throughout the 2021 season. It may become biweekly at some point(s), but I’m committed to sticking with this team throughout the year. I’m not locked into a specific format or process for these articles; that will likely change during the campaign. I’m not sure where this series or season will end, but I’m excited to see where it goes.

It’s a lot easier to say these things when your team is undefeated, of course. Back in the early stages of the Flyers season, when their record was one of the best in the East Division, I complained how it was basically smoke and mirrors. They weren’t playing in a way that would lead to sustainable success. Sure enough, their record and playoff odds have plummeted throughout a disastrous March (ironic considering their process actually improved over that stretch, but still).

The Phillies are off to a strong start of their own, but if the Phils keeping playing like this, their odds of ending the NL’s longest Postseason drought are pretty strong. It’s no secret why the Phillies missed the Postseason in 2020; mainly due to a historically bad bullpen. The second-worst in Major League history, to be exact. There was simply no choice but for their new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to improve it. Although frankly, there was almost nothing he could’ve done to make it worse.

Three games is obviously a small sample size, but the early returns are solid. Hard-throwing lefty José Alvarado delivered two scoreless eighth innings in tie games on Thursday and Saturday. Archie Bradley was similarly stellar, not allowing a hit in 1.1 innings over the first two games. Connor Brogdon flashed the strong velocity that opened eyes in the 10th inning of Thursday’s game. Pitching with a runner on second due to the extra-inning rule MLB implemented last year, Brogdon never looked phased. He induced a harmless grounder from Freddie Freeman and a jam-shot fly from Marcell Ozuna that turned into an inning-ending double play. None of those three were on last year’s Opening Day roster; only Brogdon was even in the organization. Incumbent closer Hector Neris pitched three shutout ninth-innings as well. Night and day? That’s an understatement.

Another issue that plagued the Phillies last year was defense. The Phillies ranked 28th in defensive runs saved in 2020 at -32; a stunning drop off from being fifth in the Majors at +68 in 2019. It’s another area where the team looks better so far in 2021. Didi Gregorius made a couple of highlight-reel catches in the shallow outfield. No Brave even thought about running on J.T. Realmuto all series, while the Phillies went 2-2 in steals. Alec Bohm ripped a surefire game-tying double from Marcell Ozuna out of mid-air Thursday. And later that game, Roman Quinn turned that jammed fly by Ozuna into a twin-killing with a two-hop throw that nailed Ozzie Albies. Rhys Hoskins made the only error of the weekend with a bobble-endued errant flip to Aaron Nola covering first. But he made up for that with some nice scoops of some low throws by Bohm.

The Phillies defense needs to be better, but it doesn’t need to be perfect when you get the kind of pitching they received. One of the few bright spots of the club’s nightmare 2020 season was the dominant three-headed-monster that emerged atop the rotation. Aaron Nola made his fourth consecutive Opening Day start Thursday; only Steve Carlton has a longer streak in red pinstripes. Zack Wheeler was fifth in pitching WAR in the league in 2020. Zach Eflin delivered a career-best 3.97 ERA in 2020, and Joe Girardi said this spring he believes Eflin can be a “1C” rather than a traditional number three.

That monster was on a mythological level to start 2021. All three pitchers took a shutout into the 7th inning. Wheeler allowed just one base-runner — a second-inning single to Travis d’Arnaud, who didn’t pass first base. He, Bradley, and Neris combined to set down the last twenty-three Braves that came to the plate. Nola and Eflin didn’t allow a run through 6.2 innings before a clear mistake pitch turned into a game-tying home run. Still, Nola looked like the legitimate ace the Phillies know and love him as. Eflin threw 23 pitches in the first, then went 9, 6, 8, 7, 11, and 15 to finish his line. Those two mistake pitches cost both of them from earning the win but did little to spoil otherwise dominant performances.

Of course, it only did little to spoil those showings because the Phillies’ offense picked up their pitchers in the late innings. Wheeler took those matters into his own hands with a two-hit, two-RBI performance on Saturday; the last Phillies pitcher to record a hit was Nola on September 19, 2019. In the 10th inning Thursday, Didi Gregorius was intentionally walked to bring up Jean Segura. The Phils’ second baseman looked like “a man on a mission,” as broadcaster Tom McCarthy perfectly summarized. Sure enough, he accomplished said mission with a first-pitch single down the left-field line to deliver the club’s first Opening Day walk-off win since 2011.

If Alec Bohm had won the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year award (he finished tied for second with San Diego’s C.J. Cronnenworth), his work with runners in scoring position would’ve been the main reason why. Bohm slashed an incredible .452/.519/.524 with RISP in 2020 (per Baseball-Reference), delivering two walk-offs as well. While those numbers will probably come back to Earth eventually, he’s off to a solid start in 2021. Bohm drove in the first run of the series, muscling a first-inning bases-loaded sac-fly on Thursday. He also drove in the last run of the series with a tie-breaking RBI single in the bottom of the eighth. Yeah, he grounded out in a potential walk-off spot in the 10th inning Thursday. But as a wise man once said, “two outta three ain’t bad.” Especially in baseball.

If you’re looking for a breakdown of the Phillies roster to start the 2021 season, I’ve also got you covered.

Of course, a 3-0 start guarantees absolutely nothing; the 2019 Phillies swept Atlanta to start their season and continued strong for a few months before tapering off due to poor pitching depth. Matt Moore and Chase Anderson will give a first look at what this year’s rotation depth looks like over the next two days. They’ll be the first to face an improved Mets team hungry and expected to make noise in the ultra-competitive NL East. The Phillies don’t have those same expectations nationally, but they’ve shown they can produce a formula that should yield consistent success. Over the next six months, we’ll find out if they have the drive to sustain it.

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