Braves’ Opening Day romp vs. Phillies offers a callback to recent Octobers and a reminder of Atlanta's might

PHILADELPHIA — The Atlanta Braves reentered their hall of horrors and didn’t flinch.

Each of the past two Octobers, Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia played host to the final game of Atlanta’s season. For two consecutive years, the Braves have been forced to spend their winter dwelling on unsavory memories of this place and the team that has their playoff number. No number of regular-season victories at Citizens Bank Park will kill the demons — the Braves know too well that legends are born in autumn — but Atlanta’s 9-3 drubbing of the Phillies on Opening Day was encouraging for the visitors nonetheless.

“You know, I would have rather done it five months ago,” Braves ace Spencer Strider told reporters after the game when asked if he enjoyed pitching well in the hostile environs, “but every game is important right now.”

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The first game of the season for these teams was billed as a showdown of two of the game’s best hurlers: Strider vs. Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler. Both were predictably great, the only blot on their combined résumé a fifth-inning, two-run shot surrendered by Strider to Philadelphia’s left fielder and most moist caveman, Brandon Marsh. Wheeler allowed a handful of well-struck balls but did not let a Brave touch home and punched out five through 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 mistakes of the afternoon. The mustachioed right-hander was otherwise phenomenal, seamlessly mixing a brand-new curveball into his already loaded arsenal and striking out eight in the process. But when Strider left the game down two after five, with a well-stocked Phillies bullpen waiting in the wings, it conjured memories of his postseason performances in this very yard — complete and total brilliance marred by an unfortunately timed long ball.

In fact, much about the scene Friday at Citizens Bank Park resembled those from recent Octobers. It all starts with the continuity on the diamond. Because even though an entire offseason has passed since their last showdown, the characters have hardly changed. A whopping 17 of the 18 position players that started 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 2023 NLDS Game 5. A packed house of inebriated, bundled-up Philadelphians screaming their throats dry; the elaborate, 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 readied himself in important situations; the incessant jeering of Philadelphia sports villains Ronald Acuña Jr. and Orlando Arcia; and, of course, the mountain of sound that erupted around the yard when Marsh’s go-ahead home run eked over the left-center-field fence.

But that’s where the similarities ended.

Marsh’s big swing proved to be the Phillies’ only runs of the day. Once Wheeler was pulled, Atlanta pounced on a rusty-looking Phillies bullpen. That ‘pen, replete with many of the same relievers from the past two seasons, capitulated entirely and without pause. The normally reliable left-handed duo of Matt Strahm and José Alvarado combined to allow seven runs while recording three total outs. A timely Adam Duvall double knotted the score at 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 bases-clearing double — his third of the day, on his birthday, no less — was the nail in the coffin and sent the no-longer-rowdy Philadelphians up the aisles toward the exits and beyond.

The whole game served as a phenomenal reminder that these Braves are as talented and as formidable as any of the other recent, wildly successful Braves teams. They employ the defending NL MVP and the favorite for NL Cy Young. The lineup is scary deep, even with the unfortunate loss of Sean Murphy, who will miss time on the injured list after straining his oblique Friday on a harmless-looking swing. The rotation is helmed by Strider and Max Fried and backed up by a pair of reliable, hard-throwing vets in 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 A.J. Minter pointed toward this unit ranking as one of the league’s best, something that will surely change throughout the long season yet 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 those regular-season contests will fully squash the bad memories that rattle inside the heads of Braves players whenever they enter this arena; the slaying of October dragons requires October glory. But Atlanta’s Opening Day performance showed that the Braves are, obviously, extremely capable of upending the Phillies — or anyone else — come autumn.

If the baseball gods shine down upon us, these two teams will collide for a third straight postseason. The Braves, whether they say it openly or not, would surely relish the chance to upend their foes on their turf in the playoffs. Past October showings aside, Atlanta’s players and managers insist that they enjoy competing in the deafening cauldron that is Citizens Bank Park.

Strider gets it. He knows that he and his team attract vitriol in this unforgiving town because, well, they’re exceptionally good at baseball.

Said Strider after the game: “They don’t boo nobodies.”

And the Braves certainly aren’t nobodies.

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