Braves hammer Phillies 8-1 in 2021 home opener

Acuna

Friday night at Truist Park was amazing. The Braves won their fifth-straight home opener there thanks to a 4-for-5 performance from Ronald Acuna Jr. and six strong innings from starting pitcher Charlie Morton. Atlanta will play at home 80 more times in 2021, but I’ll bet, by season’s end, Game No. 1 will go down as one of the best all-around team performances. 

Now 3-4 for the year and in the midst of a three-game winning streak, the Braves are two games back from first-place in the NL East. Not too shabby for an offense that was collectively hitting just .170 entering Friday’s matchup with the Phillies, including the major’s third-lowest fWAR total overall. It may seem like a cliché, but folks this is the type of baseball Atlanta is capable of playing… and if Friday’s win is any indication as to where the team is currently trending, this will once again be one of the best in the National League and a bona-fide World Series contender. But of course… we already knew that, right? 

Although, no recap of Friday night’s victory would be proper without first spending a moment to appreciate the fact that fans are now part of the games again. 

I’m sure it was even more thrilling for the folks in attendance, but just simply seeing and hearing the fans during the live broadcast on TV was a really cool deal. Friday featured roughly a third of capacity at Truist Park, but I’m sure it felt pretty close to a full stadium considering all the buzz. Hopefully soon we’ll get back to Friday nights with 40,000+ fans strong at Truist. 

On to the recap…

For the first several innings, Friday’s game felt a lot like a repeat of last week’s drubbing. Morton and Zack Wheeler traded zeros for the first two frames, which included a combined three stranded runners for the Braves and a very uncharacteristic baserunning blunder by Freddie Freeman when he was picked off at second base by Philly’s catcher J.T. Realmuto to end the first inning. 

The Phillies broke the scoreless tie in the third when Andrew McCutchen singled in Jean Segura with a line drive to right field, though up to that point Morton was dealing rather well with only one hit allowed and four strikeouts. The Braves righty quickly put a halt to any possible two-out rally by Philadelphia, and following McCutchen’s RBI, Morton struck out Rhys Hoskins to limit the damage to just one run. 

After a rather uneventful fourth inning from both teams, it was Morton — with a bat — that kicked off the offensive onslaught for Atlanta over the next two frames. The 37-year-old Braves pitcher — wielding a career .075 AVG at the plate — started off the fifth with a single to right field to flip the batting order over, and the hot-hitting Acuna was due up and looking to do damage.

And boy did he do damage. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Acuna absolutely pummeled a hanging slider thrown by Wheeler, sending the 90 MPH pitch 456 feet and somewhere out beyond the fountains behind the center field wall. The abused ball came off RAJ’s bat at an exit-velocity of 114.1 MPH… and Truist Park went nuts. Braves lead 2-1.

Following Acuna’s moonshot homer, Ozzie Albies provided what would be another valuable hit, slapping a ground-ball double to right field to keep the pressure on Philadelphia. A mound visit by Phillies manager Joe Giradi (which ended up being significant for reasons given below) composed Wheeler enough for him to get Freeman to ground out, and even after that it looked as if the Phillies pitcher would get out of the jam — getting Travis d’Arnaud to an 0-2 count in the next at-bat. However, as would be the case throughout his entire outing, Wheeler struggled to locate his pitches, and Atlanta’s catcher drilled a hanging breaking ball just past a diving Segura to knock in Albies from second. The Braves lead extends to 3-1. 

Then things got even worse for the Phillies. After d’Arnaud’s hit, Girardi seemingly forgot that he had just come out to visit Wheeler three batters prior. But, because managers are allowed one mound visit per pitcher, he was forced to make a pitching change, perhaps ending Wheeler’s night prematurely (although, at 90+ pitches, he was probably about done anyways). Phillies reliever Brandon Kintzler quickly stopped the bleeding (for now), and struck out Dansby Swanson to end the Braves fifth inning. 

However, Acuna’s big hit appeared to have made a huge impact on Atlanta’s offense because they certainly weren’t done. 

After back-to-back errors by the Phillies to start the sixth inning, Ehire Adrianza came on to pinch-hit for Morton with runners on first (Cristian Pache) and second (Austin Riley). Then, the Braves Spring Training hero did this to what looked to be a decently located breaking ball…

Atlanta’s five-run lead after six innings seemed sufficient to pick up the win, but the lineup wasn’t done doing damage. Both teams went rather quiet in the seventh before the Braves tacked on two more runs just for good measure in the eighth. And despite being in the midst of a poor start to the season, Freeman joined the fun with his second home run of 2021, giving the team three for the night and a big late-game lead they would hold onto. 

https://twitter.com/Braves/status/1380707964135297026?s=19

The cushion was big enough for manager Brian Snitker to allow reliever Luke Jackson to work the ninth frame. Jackson was sharp and needed just seven pitches to end the Phillies night, preserving Atlanta’s 8-1 win. What a game.

Three main takeaways

1. This has to be Acuna’s hottest start, right?

Yeah, Acuna was pretty awesome right out the gate when he debuted in the majors back in 2018, hitting .345 with six XBH and four RBI through his first seven games for the Braves. However, his most-recent seven-game start has been even better than that as Acuna is currently slashing .393/.433/.857 (1.290 OPS) with seven XBH (3 HR / 4 doubles) and six RBI. 

Now obviously the pace is bound to slow a bit — he’s on pace to slug 72 homers and knock in 144 runs, when prorating his career average of 720 PA per season. But it’s great to see Acuna starting hot, especially considering he hit just .167 in 2019 and .143 in ’20 during the first seven games of each of those two seasons. As we saw Friday night, this Braves lineup essentially lives and dies with Acuna, and when he’s on… the offense is one of the most dangerous in baseball.

2. It will be something if Morton can keep this up all season

Morton was sharp on Friday, efficiently flying through six innings and allowing just one run from four hits, including seven strikeouts and one walk. For the season he’s now at a 3.27 ERA through his first two starts (11 IP) and his K/BB ratio (12 / 3) is very impressive. But I’ll admit (though I hope I’m wrong), I’m still skeptical — given his age (37) — that he maintains this type of performance all season. 

Going into 2021, FanGraphs Depth Charts projected Morton to lead all Braves starters in fWAR (3.4) on his way to a 3.62 ERA in 155 innings. Those are incredible numbers for a guy now into his 14th season and approaching his 40s. But what really stands out is the innings total… which essentially translates to 25-30 starts this year. 

In the Modern Era of baseball (since 1920), the Braves have had just 20 starting pitcher seasons featuring an age-37-or-older starter logging 25 or more starts. And it’s only six different pitchers that have pulled that feat off, and all but two are Hall of Famers…

Morton has been a solid pitcher during his career, but he’s no Hall-of-Famer. And historically, 37 or older starters usually don’t do too well, no matter how many starts they end up getting. Sure, Lowe and Dickey, from above, combined to pull off three such seasons, but they also collectively posted a 4.43 ERA during those years with the Braves, so while durability was obviously on their side, it’s not as if they were putting up consistent quality-starts.

But after seeing what Morton has done over these first couple of outings, if anyone has a chance to be a rotation stalwart at the age of 37… it’s him. Like a fine wine, Morton seems to be getting better with age, which was perfectly put on display on Friday and especially just two seasons ago when he put up a career-best 6.1-fWAR campaign with the Rays in 2019. Even more than the fact that it’s obviously stabilizing a starting rotation that’s missing ace Mike Soroka, we should really appreciate what Morton’s doing right now.

3. The bench may actually be fine

Entering this season, one major weakness for the Braves was its bench. With apparently little interest in bringing back outfielder Adam Duvall or Charlie Culberson or Adeiny Hechavarria, Atlanta was forced to take a bunch of flyers on guys like Adrianza, Pablo Sandoval, Jason Kipnis, Ryan Goins, and others. Doesn’t seem too good, right?

And most of those listed above didn’t work out, as expected. However, Adrianza and Sandoval have been as good as you could ask for as both have combined to go 3 for 6 (.500 AVG) thus far, including three home runs and seven RBI. You saw Adrianza’s three-run homer from Friday, and Sandoval got Braves Country fired up on Opening Day when he scored the team’s first run of the season with a dinger. This bench full of old guys and no-names just might work after all. It certainly has worked during the first week. 

Let’s do it again! The Braves and Phillies go at it again on Saturday as Ian Anderson looks to get his first win of the 2021 season. He’ll face Philadelphia’s Zach Eflin, who pitched extremely well against Atlanta last week. First pitch is set for 7:20 PM (ET), and Bally Sports Southeast will provide the broadcast for the Braves, while out-of-market fans can tune in on MLB Network. 

Let’s keep the winning going. Go Braves!

 

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