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José Alvarado, Phillies look like anything but the best bullpen in baseball on Opening Day

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Jose Alvarado and the Phillies bullpen struggled Friday. (John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

In terms of projected WAR, FanGraphs says that Philadelphia Phillies should have the best bullpen in baseball in 2024. It was hardly an outlandish prediction based off of how the returning members of the bullpen pitched a year ago. But it looked outlandish Friday.

Zack Wheeler shined in his first career Opening Day start, holding the Atlanta Braves to just five hits over five shutout innings. Given that he only threw 89 pitches, perhaps Wheeler could have come back out for another inning, although it’s pretty typical for managers not to push the workload of their pitchers in the first start of the season. Wheeler also missed some time during Spring Training because of the birth of his third child, so he didn’t get to build up quite as much as he normally would have. And given the outings that multiple key relievers had once he departed, it may not have mattered if the Phillies ace took down one more inning.

Matt Strahm struggled in his first relief appearance of the season, allowing three hits and two earned runs.

A case can be made that Brandon Marsh should have caught what ended up being a double off the bat of Orlando Arcia. It’s also fair to wonder if once Braves manager Brian Snitker sent the right-handed hitting Adam Duvall up to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Jarred Kelenic with runners in scoring position and only one out if Phillies skipper Rob Thomson should have countered with righty Jeff Hoffman, who was warming up in the bullpen. Instead, the left-handed Strahm faced Duvall, and gave up a two-run double.

“Strahm threw the ball extremely well during Spring Training,” Thomson said postgame. “He got left-handers out, he got right-handers out. We just liked his pitches against Duvall.”

All that acknowledged, Strahm was one of the best relievers in the Phillies bullpen a year ago, and didn’t pitch up to that level Friday.

If there’s one glimmer of hope it’s that when the aforementioned Hoffman did come in — probably a batter later that he should have — he resumed his role from a year ago as “the Garbage Man.” Hoffman walked reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., before inducing a groundout to first base from Ozzie Albies. With runners on second and third and two outs, Hoffman struck out Austin Riley to keep the tie intact.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, Hoffman’s strong performance will be nothing more than a footnote when looking back at Opening Day 2024.

José Alvarado came on to pitch the eighth, and looked far from one of baseball’s most dominant relievers, as he was a season ago. Alvarado struggled with his control, throwing just 15 of his 30 pitches for strikes. He walked two batters, and recorded just two outs. Acuña ended Alvarado’s outing by singling into left field, plating two runs.

Alvarado gave way to Connor Brogdon, who inherited a bases-loaded, two-out jam. By the time Brogdon walked off the mound with the inning over, Alvarado had been charged with five earned runs. Mind you, he surrendered just eight earned runs over 41 1/3 innings pitched a year ago.

“I don’t think about who’s hitting, what team is coming. I don’t think about it,” Alvarado said postgame. “My challenge every time when I’m coming into the game is like hit the target.

“Like I said before, today is over. Be ready for tomorrow,” Alvarado concluded his postgame session by saying.

While it’s fair to assume that Strahm and Alvarado will be able to right the ship, Brogdon perhaps hasn’t earned the same benefit of the doubt. He struggled with his control a year ago, and that trend carried into Friday.

Granted, he came on with the bases loaded. But Brogdon immediately threw a wild pitch, allowing Travis d’Arnaud to score, while Acuña and Duvall each moved up a base. Albies then walked to reload the bases, which were promptly unloaded when Brogdon walked Riley to force a run in. Matt Olson, who had a monster day, then cleared the bases with a three-run double into the right-field corner.

Brogdon was one of the final players to make the Opening Day roster. Given that he’s out of minor-league options, you get the sense it could get late early for a player once thought to have a chance to be a bullpen anchor for the Phillies.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s gotta be able to throw strikes. That’s for sure,” Thomson said of Brogdon. “And he’s got to be able to land his changeup. Yeah, so we’ve got some work to do there.”

Overall, one game isn’t reason to panic. There are 161 more games. The Phillies beat the Braves on Opening Day 2021, only for Atlanta to win the World Series while Philadelphia sat at home in October.

But if the Phillies are going to end the Braves streak of six consecutive NL East titles, they probably are going to do it by a pretty thin margin. And Friday was a winnable game for the Phillies, at least until a bullpen they hope will be a strong suit imploded. Those are the type of games that can sway division races.

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