Opening Day unravels, but Phillies embark on season with hope and trust and a powerful motivation


PHILADELPHIA — The last time the Phillies played a game here, Alec Bohm cried. It was impossible to suppress the emotions that night. The players have since internalized it in different ways. Zack Wheeler said he never thought about it during the winter. “Once it’s done,” Wheeler said, “it’s done.” Ranger Suárez admitted he could not quash the thoughts.

“Sometimes,” Suárez said, “it’ll just pop in my head and I think about that Game 7.”

For 157 days, Game 7 lingered with the Phillies. Bohm’s reaction was the most visceral among those in the losing clubhouse last October. He thought about it on his tedious drive back to Florida. He thought about it at random moments during the offseason. He realized why he cried, and it’s the same sensation that will keep powering him. It’s why Phillies fans will live and die with every nine-inning increment for the next six months — beginning Friday with a 9-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day that was punctuated by a bullpen meltdown.

They crave something that makes them feel invincible.

“The thought of losing Game 7 never really crossed anyone’s mind,” Bohm said this spring. “It didn’t seem like that was an option or a possibility, that we were going to lose.”

So many of the men in that room for the Phillies 157 days ago gathered Friday afternoon to try this whole thing again. There was pomp and circumstance, but none of it was overdone. The Phillies have talked for weeks about unfinished business, a noble concept, but one that can galvanize a team.

They had unfinished business to begin 2023 because they tasted the World Series in 2022 and lost. That was different; they didn’t expect to be there. They expected to win Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. They expect to have a better start in 2024. They expect to remain in the divisional race and they expect to be the last team standing in October.

“It’s a long season,” Wheeler said. “We’ll get back on track and get it going.”

Spencer Strider threw 99 mph fastballs and dropped a new curveball into the mix. But Brandon Marsh cracked a fastball for a two-run homer. Strider was done after only five innings. Wheeler tossed six scoreless. It was perfect. This is how the Phillies would begin their redemption quest — a win to satisfy all of the narratives about how 2023 ended and how they could catch the standard-bearer in the NL East.

Then, the Phillies needed 54 pitches to record three outs in the eighth inning. It was cold. It was windy. It didn’t go how they wanted it to go.

But the Phillies were back.

“Actually, I thought it was kind of beautiful,” Kyle Schwarber said. “Don’t get me wrong, there was some wind and things. But once you got moving around and the sun was out there, it felt good.”

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The teams line the baselines during pregame festivities on Opening Day. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

This whole enterprise is built on hope and trust. The Phillies suffered one of their most heartbreaking losses in years last October, and in different circumstances, it could have been the impetus for massive changes. Dave Dombrowski, the veteran executive tasked with overseeing this franchise’s renaissance, is not afraid to make transactions. And, for most of the winter, he remained inactive.

It was a strong vote of confidence in what the Phillies had built. So, they will live and die with this group. They will trust the manager who lifted his ace at 89 pitches on March 29 because there is no sense in risking things on March 29. They will lean on a bullpen filled with hard-throwing pitchers who sometimes cannot throw strikes. They will ride a boom-or-bust offense.

They will continue to exist in this weird relationship with the Braves, in which each side is chasing something the other has. It can’t always come down to a five-game series in October. The schedule-makers had decided upon a Phillies-Braves opening series well before they met in last October’s National League Division Series, but it was too perfect. Fans serenaded Strider. The Braves embraced the role of villain during pregame introductions.

“I like playing here,” Strider said. “It’s a fun place to play. They’ve got passionate fans, a good team on the other side of the field, and that usually leads to a fun game.”

The feeling is mutual.

“A really good team over there,” Bryce Harper said. “But, also, you know, we’re a really good team too. We were in position today to go 1-0 and just didn’t get it done.”

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Zack Wheeler pitched six scoreless innings and struck out five in his first Opening Day start. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Wheeler was everything the Phillies wanted. He became the third Phillies pitcher in the past 40 years to throw six shutout innings on Opening Day. Roy Halladay did it in 2012. Curt Schilling did it in 1997 and 1998. Each time, those pitchers threw eight innings. It’s a different game now; no one will fault the Phillies for prioritizing the long haul with Wheeler.

A cleaner seventh inning pitched by Wheeler instead of Matt Strahm and Jeff Hoffman might have made things easier for José Alvarado later. Maybe it would not have mattered. Alvarado did not have a feel for anything. He allowed five earned runs for the first time in five years.

Alvarado did not allow his fifth earned run in 2023 until Aug. 29. The Phillies’ bullpen had not allowed seven runs in a single inning since The James Norwood Game in 2022.

“That’s baseball,” Alvarado said. “No excuses.”

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The Phillies bullpen inherited a 2-0 lead. But José Alvarado and company had a nightmarish game. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

April and May will be an exercise in balancing that hope and trust. The Phillies have proven in each of the past two seasons that it doesn’t matter how you play early in the season. They — without question — made it more difficult on themselves to reach those postseasons. Now, there are expectations, and those matter. The division matters. But nothing matters too much in April or May. Everyone tells themselves that, then Brandon Marsh is sprinting around the bases on a two-run homer, and those emotions come rushing back.

“You’re feeling pretty good with the bullpen that we have,” manager Rob Thomson said. “It just didn’t play out that way.”

It didn’t play out the way the Phillies dreamed last October. It was a lesson, many in the clubhouse said this spring, to never take this thing for granted. It humbled them. It motivated them.

“It’s time to forget about that,” Suárez said, “and to win it all this time.”

This time, after the Phillies lost Friday, they knew there was another game tomorrow.

(Top photo of Brandon Marsh: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)





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