Gregory Soto

Nola and Soto struggle, Phillies lose back-and-forth game to begin NL East trip

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ATLANTA -- The Phillies came back to tie the Braves or take a lead three different times Thursday night but it wasn't enough.

Gregory Soto and Aaron Nola were unable to hold down a dynamic Atlanta offense in an 8-5 loss.

With the game tied in the bottom of the eighth inning, manager Rob Thomson went to the lefty Soto with left-handed-hitting Eddie Rosario and switch-hitter Ozzie Albies due up. Soto struck out Kevin Pillar, who pinch-hit for Rosario, but proceeded to put the next five Braves on base on a single, double, walk, two-run single and another single.

By the time Soto was pulled with two outs, the Phillies trailed by three runs.

The game-winning knock was a pinch-hit two-run single by Travis d'Arnaud in between shortstop and third base. Braves skipper Brian Snitker sent d'Arnaud to the plate to hit for lefty Michael Harris II, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year who is hitting just .165 on the season.

The Braves are 31-19. The Phillies are 23-27. The teams did not meet until their 50th game of the season. The Phils had played just one series against the NL East through the first two months, a three-gamer at home against the Marlins the second week of April. They have three more on this road trip against the Braves, followed by three with the Mets and three with the Nationals.

Nola allowed a season-high three home runs, two from Austin Riley (traveling 458 and 459 feet) and one from Marcell Ozuna, who also had a huge game. Nola's entire night was stressful with multiple baserunners in four of the first five innings and a homer in the other.

His only 1-2-3 inning was the sixth, his last. It was a step back -- granted, it came against the National League's best offense -- after he had led the Phillies to wins in five of his last seven starts, averaging just under seven innings.

The degree of difficulty was high. The Braves lead the NL in slugging, OPS and home runs per game. They have the early-season MVP favorite in Ronald Acuña Jr., another player in the top-five in OPS in Sean Murphy, and then there's Riley, who hasn't even gotten going yet.

Interestingly, the Phillies follow three of their four series against the Braves by playing the Mets, condensing so many of their most important games of the regular season into three specific weeks in May, June and September.

"Division games are so important," Thomson said pregame. "I always say, you've got to win at home and you've got to win in your division if you want to win the division. These games are really important. It's good that it's backed up like this because we really haven't played up to our capabilities to this point."

The Phillies had the starting pitching advantage Thursday night with Nola going up against rookie left-hander Dylan Dodd. The Phils were not fooled by the 25-year-old, reaching base nine times in his five innings, including homers from Alec Bohm and Bryce Harper. 

Bohm's was a game-tying two-run shot in the second inning. He's up to 37 RBI on the season, third-most in the NL behind Pete Alonso and Nolan Gorman.

Harper's was a 445-foot, game-tying solo blast in the fifth, his 40th career home run against the Braves. Two innings later with the bases empty and two outs, Harper laid down a perfect bunt single against lefty A.J. Minter to start another game-tying rally. He scored on a rare lefty-on-lefty double by Kyle Schwarber off of Minter.

If the Braves have a weakness, it's the current state of their starting rotation. Max Fried is out until July with a forearm strain, while 21-game winner Kyle Wright might be out for the season with a shoulder injury. The first two starters the Phillies face in this series, Dodd and fellow lefty Jared Shuster, are rookies just getting their feet wet in the majors who have experienced some early stumbles.

The Phillies had Nola start Thursday with $72 million veteran Taijuan Walker going Friday. Zack Wheeler starts Saturday opposite Charlie Morton. The Phils need to capitalize on these theoretical pitching advantages, particularly before the No. 5 spot in their rotation comes up against strikeout leader Spencer Strider on Sunday Night Baseball.

"Maybe yesterday was kind of a springboard," Thomson said Thursday afternoon of the Phillies' five-run comeback Wednesday against the Diamondbacks.

Not quite. The series continues Friday night at 7:20.

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