Phillies

Is balance of power in NL East shifting back to Braves?

Is balance of power in NL East shifting back to Braves?

Is the balance of power in the NL East shifting?

The Phillies' barrage of injuries to Andrew McCutchen and seven key relievers, combined with the Braves' strong recent play and agreement last week with free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel, may give the Braves an equal or better chance to win a division that, so far this season, has been handled by the Phils.

Entering Monday night, the Phillies had spent 74 of the season's 75 days in first place, losing their lead for only one night to the Mets.

The Braves had not led the division for even a minute until Monday night, when they tied the Phillies. The teams have not met since the first three games of the season — which the Phillies swept — but face off June 14-16 in Atlanta.

Winning the division carries obvious importance. The Phillies did not spend $403 million on Bryce Harper, McCutchen and David Robertson, plus trade for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura, just to play in a one-game, do-or-die, wild-card playoff.

But the road to winning the NL East will be tough for the Phillies without their leadoff man, without most of their bullpen and without any guarantees in the starting rotation.

Pitching issues

The starting staff appeared to be one area the Phillies were much better than the Braves. But Aaron Nola has not been the same. He carries a 4.58 ERA into his next start.

Jake Arrieta has, again, underwhelmed. He's allowed four runs or more in six of his last nine starts. Arrieta has a 4.07 ERA in 44 starts with the Phillies and there is no aspect of his game other than groundball rate that has graded out above average these last two seasons.

Right now, there is no Phillies pitcher you can look at as a lock on a given night, or as a stopper during a losing streak. It's an issue and one they know they must rectify before July 31.

Monday night was another example that starting pitching is a necessary addition for this team. The D-backs homered eight times, including five off Jerad Eickhoff, who has been taken deep an unfathomable 16 times in his last 27 innings.

Combine that with the surprising emergence of Braves starting pitcher Mike Soroka (1.38 ERA in 65 innings) and the rotation gap between these teams has diminished.

Braves' offense better?

Offensively, the Braves have been better than the Phillies in almost every way. They've scored 12 more runs, hit 14 points higher, hit 13 more home runs and have an OPS edge of 31 points.

The Phillies have allowed 27 more home runs than they've hit. They are one of only three teams in the majors to be outhomered but over .500 (Rockies, Indians). It is a major concern that has been masked by the Phils' overall solid play to this point. But in such a home run-crazed game, can a team truly contend without matching its opponent's power? The Phillies are on pace to allow 265 home runs. The major-league record is 258.

Atlanta's best hitter, Freddie Freeman, is just more solid and consistent than the Phillies' best hitter, Bryce Harper. Atlanta's second-best hitter, Ronald Acuña Jr., is a better all-around player than anyone the Phillies have. Those sentences may be hard for Phillies fans to read but they're the truth, especially in 2019. 

There are 63 major-leaguers who have more home runs than Harper and 34 major-leaguers who have more home runs than Rhys Hoskins, who leads the Phils.

Bullpens

The back-end of the Braves' bullpen is still a question mark. Luke Jackson is a new and unproven closer and the Braves have shuffled through various setup men. But given all of the Phillies' bullpen injuries, it's hard to say they're better off than the Braves in relief moving forward.

These final 100 games will not be played on paper, but for the Phillies to remain in first place they're going to need to take advantage of these 16 remaining meetings with the Braves. The Braves have, somehow, played only five of their first 66 games against the Phillies and Nationals.

It's going to be a tight and exciting race the rest of the way. With seven of the remaining head-to-head matchups coming between Sept. 9 and Sept. 19, it will likely come down to the wire. Perhaps by then, the Phillies' lineup will have clicked 1 through 8 in a way we saw only during the season's first week.

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Ricky Bottalico recalls the last time Major League Baseball shut down

Ricky Bottalico recalls the last time Major League Baseball shut down

Prior to the indefinite suspension of the 2020 season, the last time Major League Baseball completely shut down was September 2001. No games were played for a full week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

NBC Sports Philadelphia Phillies analyst Ricky Bottalico was in his second stint as a Phillies reliever in 2001. He shared his recollections of that unique experience, beginning with the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. 

"We were in Atlanta to play the Braves and one thing I remember was getting phone calls in the morning to turn on the TV," Bottalico said. "We're baseball players so we're not necessarily up at 8:30 in the morning. You turn on your TV, you see what's going on and then the panic strikes. When is this going to affect us? Is this coming here? Atlanta has a heavy dose of planes coming in and out every day, do we have to do something different? We didn't have answers, at least in the first 24 hours we didn't have any answers. We all congregated in the hotel lobby and tried to get a better idea of exactly what was going on. At some point that morning you knew it was terrorist attacks." 

Bottalico and his teammates knew they weren't playing baseball that night. But the plan for the rest of the week was unclear. 

"As the days went on we got a feel for 'Ok we're not playing this series, we have a series in Cincinnati coming up, what are we going to do here?'" Bottalico remembers. "If anyone knows Larry Bowa, he's not real patient. Larry was like 'Come on get on the buses, we're going (to Cincinnati)'. Doug Glanville and myself were the (MLBPA) player reps at the time and we were in contact with our union. They were telling us most likely we're not playing the next series so if you're going to take a bus make sure you wait for us to tell you where to go. Well Bowa didn't want to wait, so we end up taking a bus to Cincinnati. Three hours after we started our trip we found out that series was cancelled. We were heading northwest to Cincinnati so we couldn't really turn back towards Philadelphia. 

"I remember getting into Cincinnati late at night and they told us they had a plane (to Philadelphia) for us the next morning. This was four days after 9/11. We went to the airport that morning, got on a charter jet, and nobody said a word on that flight. You could've heard a pin drop. Obviously it was a tense situation."

But unlike this present day scenario, Bottalico and the rest of the Phillies knew the 2001 season would resume at some point in the not too distant future. 

"We knew we were going to play," Bottalico said. "We knew this wasn't going to hold us back from playing for the whole season. We eventually got word that we were starting back up (the next week). I think from a player's standpoint then, we felt responsible to try to help get the nation back on its feet, be a distraction from what was going on in every day life. 

"We had to play again. There wasn't any danger of planes flying into stadiums, so we ended up playing and I think it helped America heal a little bit."  

Uncertain Times

The 2001 Phillies wanted to play again to help provide a sense of normalcy. But the week away from baseball was unnerving, especially that bus ride to Cincinnati.  

"I had a young daughter who was with the grandparents in Connecticut so it was scary in that sense," Bottalico admits. "My wife at the time was on the road trip. We had other wives on the trip who were pregnant so that was kind of scary. They're six or seven months pregnant at that point and you're talking about a 10 or 11 hour bus ride to Cincinnati. It was tough for them."

Some players were still trying to come to grips with what exactly the country was going through. 

"There were a lot of guys who were in disbelief," Bottalico said. "You're on a bus for 11 hours trying to figure out in your mind what could happen and what should happen. In my case obviously thinking about my daughter who was with her grandparents. It was a trying time. But after a few days of that, we felt an obligation to get back on the field."

First Game Back

The Phillies resumed their season on Monday, Sept. 17. They welcomed the first place Braves to town for a four-game series at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies entered that series just 3.5 games behind Atlanta in the NL East standings. 

But that first game back was about far more than baseball. 

"The greatest thing I remember from that night was the guy who had the American flag and he was walking around the whole stadium," Bottalico recalled. "That pretty much went on for that whole series. The guy with the American flag just kept walking around, and the chants of 'USA! USA! USA!'. It made you proud to be in that stadium that night. 

"There was an unbelievable tribute video which still plays in my mind because right at the end of it they showed a Jimmy Rollins at-bat and he starts running and as he rounds first base it transforms into a Little League kid running to second base. And the kid gets to second base and they pan out and behind second base its a shot of the New York City skyline with the World Trade Center towers. At that point there couldn't have been a dry eye in the stadium. 

"To be completely honest whether you won or lost that night, and it was odd because it was the Braves and it was the team we were chasing in the division, but it didn't matter what team you were on. I think everybody was just proud to be on that field."

The Phillies beat the Braves 5-2 that night behind a pair of Scott Rolen home runs off of Greg Maddux. 

Division Race

The Phillies won three of four against the Braves in that series to pull within a game and a half of the division lead. But the Phillies went 5-7 over their next 12 games and ultimately finished two games behind the Braves in the NL East.

Of course, Bottalico understands why the 2001 season was halted for a week following 9/11. But he wonders if things might have ended differently if the season would have played out without the delay. 

"I just remember being extremely fired up for that series in Atlanta (that was postponed)," Bottalico said. "We had an off day before the Tuesday that was 9/11 and I remember going in there and we were fired up, ready to play those guys. We didn't have the greatest pitching staff but I think going into that series we really felt like we had a shot. 

"I know we beat them up a little bit when they came to Veterans Stadium the following week after the break. But then we knew in the back of our minds that we had to go back to Atlanta (to make up the postponed series) at the end of the year. So things definitely changed a little bit. 

"We lost some adrenaline as that week unfolded. We had it early on when we first came back but we sputtered at times towards the end. We stayed right on their heels but I just really believe if things would have gone a little differently maybe the season would have ended a little differently."

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Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Steve Carlton, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay. There are certain eras of Phillies baseball over the last 40 years when you knew who was going to have the honor of being named opening day starter before spring training even started. This year, Aaron Nola was poised to take the ball for his third straight opening-day start. 

Since Carlton’s incredible run of starting 14 out of 15 openers, there have been 15 pitchers tabbed to start the season off for the Phillies but not all were household names. Here’s a look back at some of the pitchers you may have forgotten got the nod in Game 1 of 162.

2005-06: Jon Lieber

Lieber had a couple of pretty good seasons with the Cubs early in the 2000s, was an All-Star in ’01 when he won 20 games and started three straight Opening Days for them. But after having Tommy John surgery, he signed with the Yankees, missed all of ’03 and then bounced back with a solid 2004, good enough for the Phillies to sign him.

He won that '05 opener for the Phillies and had a pretty good campaign, winning 17 games and leading the NL in starts. He pitched another two unremarkable years for the Phils, going 12-17 with a 4.87 ERA.

2001/02: Omar Daal/Robert Person

Lumping these two together because it was a transition time for the Phillies. In the midst of their seventh straight sub-.500 finish, the Phillies traded ace Curt Schilling in July of 2000 to Arizona for four players, one of which was Daal. The lefty ended up losing 19 games in 2000, one game short of becoming the first pitcher in 20 years to lose 20. But that was good enough to earn (?) him the opening day start in 2001, the first with Larry Bowa as manager. Daal had a better year, going 13-7, but did have a 4.46 ERA.

Person also had a very solid season, going 15-7 with a 4.19 ERA. That got him the start in the 2002 opener, but he never found the same success on the mound as he did in ’01. At the plate, however, he had one of the more memorable days for a Phillies pitcher this century in a June game vs. Montreal. He hit a grand slam and a 3-run homer, going 3 for 4 with seven RBI.

2000: Andy Ashby

Ashby had come up in the Phillies system in the late '80s and actually made his MLB debut for the club in 1991. He was drafted by the Rockies in the expansion draft and ended up in San Diego, where he flourished. He was a two-time all-star, started a couple of openers and helped lead the Padres to the NL title in 1998.

When the Phillies traded three prospects for Ashby before 2000, they thought it gave them a legit 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation to go along with Schilling (who missed the beginning of 2000 due to injury). However, that didn’t work out. After going 4-7 with a 5.68 ERA, Ashby was traded during the All-Star break to the Braves for Bruce Chen.

1996: Sid Fernandez

Did you even remember Sid Fernandez was a Phillie? From 1994 through 1999, Schilling started five of six opening days for the Phils. When he started ’96 on the DL, in stepped Fernandez for the opening day honor. “El Sid” had some really good seasons with the vaunted Mets staff of the '80s, making a couple of All-Star games and helping them win a World Series.

Almost a decade later, he signed with the Phillies for the second half of the ’95 season and did well, posting a 3.34 ERA and going 6-1. He wasn’t as effective in ’96, which basically ended his career (he pitched one game for Houston the next season).

1990: Bruce Ruffin

Remembered more for his Chris Berman-given nickname, Bruce “Two Minutes For” Ruffin’s career started with a bang. He went 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA for the Phillies in 1986. But it kind of went downhill from there. Over the next five years with the club, he never finished above .500 and had only one year with an ERA below 4.00. But he got the opening day start in 1990 because someone had to. Partly because…

1989: Floyd Youmans

Maybe the original “new guy” that got the nod for the Phillies, Floyd Youmans had a promising start to his career in Montreal. He started the opener in ’87 at the age of 23, but injuries and a suspension derailed his time there. Before the 1989 season, the Phillies got him in a trade for Kevin Gross. Youmans started only 10 games for the Phillies in what was his final MLB season.

1987-1988: Shane Rawley

Rawley actually had a few good years with the Phils. He made the All-Star team in 1986 and won 17 games with a 3.54 ERA. In ’85, he won 13 with a 3.31. So when it came time to replace Carlton for Opening Day, the torch was passed to Rawley.

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