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Phillies notes: Wheeler's strong start, Realmuto's pop quiz, more from Opening Day

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The South Philadelphia air was thick with anticipation when the Citizens Bank Park gates opened early Friday afternoon for the Phillies once-delayed Opening Day against the defending division champion Braves. Somewhere Harry Kalas was humming the opening bars of “High Hopes.” That positive energy was presaged in Rob Thomson’s late morning pregame media scrum in the dugout.

“So this is the year, right?” was the first question – or maybe it was a comment – lobbed at the Phillies manager. Thomson grinned. “Well, that’s the plan,” the Phillies manager replied with a grin. “That’s the plan every year.”

Funny thing about that. To the left of the home clubhouse door, the exit which leads to the dugout tunnel, is a picture of boxer Mike Tyson along with his famous quote, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the face.”

Fortunately for the Phillies, there’s no such thing as a knockout punch in Game 1.

Yeah, they got their noses bloodied by an unsightly bullpen implosion. That’s all. The 9-3 loss to the Braves will be picked apart and overanalyzed simply because it’s the first game. In the big picture, it means no more than a 10-0 win would have.

Remember, Atlanta’s Magic Number to force the Phillies to enter the playoffs through the wild card door is still 161.

Swing, batter batter: Speaking of the wild card, there was a lot of talk throughout spring training about avoiding having losing records into June and then being forced to come on strong just to qualify or the postseason as they did in 2022 and 2023.

This year, the stated goal was to get off to a fast start on the way to halting the Braves streak of NL East titles at six. Thomson repeated pregame that the biggest change he made in Clearwater was trying to make sure all his regulars got plenty of Grapefruit League at bats. That was difficult last year, he noted, because so many of his starters – Kyle Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto, Trea Turner – participated in the World Baseball Classic and got to camp late.

Proving once again that baseball is a game that can’t always be explained, the only big knock the Phillies got before pushing cross a cosmetic run in the bottom of the ninth Friday was a 2-run homer by leftfielder Brandon Marsh off Braves starter Spencer Strider in the fifth.

Marsh was limited to just 18 at bats in Florida after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee just before camp opened.

“It was a good feeling, just so you know you can still do it,” he said. “But it doesn’t really mean much. It felt good but on to the next (game) now.”

And the fact that he homered off one of the league’s best starters with so few plate appearances in preparation? “That’s baseball,” he said with a shrug. “At any given time, anything can happen.”

Stat of the Game: This pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how drastically the game turned for the Phils after starter Zack Wheeler left the game:

Wheeler: 6 IP | 5 H| 0 R | 0 W | 5 K | 89 P (63 STRIKES)
Bullpen: 3 IP | 8 H | 9 R | 5 W | 5 K | 86 P (46 STRIKES)

Pop quiz: One of the obvious story lines going into the season was the intersection between the fact that Realmuto has been behind the plate for more innings than any catcher in baseball over the last four seasons and the reality that he’s now 33 years old.

Since there more physical demands on a catcher than any other position, it’s natural to look for signs that Realmuto could be starting to slow down.

Defensively, he threw out just 22.1 percent of runners trying to steal (23 of 81) last season. And while stolen bases were up sharply across baseball because of the new rule that allowed pitchers just two pickoff attempts, that was still a career low and barely above the expected league percentage (19 percent). A year earlier he gunned down 44.1 percent, nearly double the ELP (24 percent).

The Braves wasted no time testing him on Opening Day. Ronald Acuna Jr. led off the top of the first with a single and, with one out, stole second. It’s hard to read to much into that. Realmuto made a strong, accurate throw but Acuna did, after all, swipe 73 bags last season.

In the third, Braves leftfielder Jarred Kelenic led off with a base hit and promptly took off for second. This time, Realmuto gunned him down.

According to the decision desk, this issue is far too early to call.

Dee-fense: Phillies shortstop Trea Turner is the first to admit he had a poor season with the glove in 2023 and has vowed to do better. That New Year’s resolution didn’t get off to a great start, however, when Turner failed to come up with a slow roller to his left in the fifth inning, allowing Braves catcher Sean Murphy to reach on the error.

On the other hand, some sharp corner defense saved a run for Wheeler in the first. Acuna Jr. was on second with one out when Auston Riley hit a sharp grounder toward left field. Alec Bohm made the diving stop, scrambled to his feet, looked the runner back to second and then threw Riley out easily.

Matt Olson followed with a sinking line drive just inside first base that Bryce Harper was able to intercept before it got through into right to end the inning and strand Acuna.

So long and farewell: Citizens Bank Park opened its 20th season Friday minus one of its signature architectural flourishes: The out-of-town scoreboard that used to dominate the rightfield wall.

It’s been replaced by an electronic board that sometimes displays what’s happening around baseball, but also alternates that with batter and pitcher stats and advertisements.

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