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April 07, 2023

Instant observations: J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos lift Phillies in home opener

A banner was raised, Realmuto crushed a ball into the left-center seats, and the Phillies took home victory No. 1.

The Phillies finally looked like a contending baseball team Friday, opening the season at home with a 5-2 victory over the Reds on the heels of standout performances from Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto.

Those are two names you hope to hear a lot of this spring as the Phils try to hang on and get back into the top part of the NL East standings after a really slow start to the season on the road.

With all the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day, here's a look back at the good, the bad and the ugly from home victory No. 1 of the season:

The good

• The way J.T. Realmuto just casually tossed his bat aside, as if he does this every day (and I guess he kind of does — remember Game 1 of the World Series?), shows the kind of swagger and confidence this Phillies team can have. It's the driving factor that I believe led them to their improbable World Series run last fall.

Realmuto drove a one-out pitch — with gusto — to left-center with Trea Turner already on base, putting the Phillies ahead 4-2 after a deadlock for most of the game. It was the kind of moment that we'll always remember from a home opener and is perhaps the swing that will turn this young season around, following the team's really ugly 1-5 start.

• I was dubious when I saw that Phils' manager Rob Thomson put Nick Castellanos in the cleanup spot of the somewhat depleted roster, but the oft-slumping $100 million man hit a well-placed grounder down the left field line for a double as the first hit of the game. A pair of walks loaded the bases for Brandon Marsh, who walked Castellanos home for an early 1-0 lead.

Just an inning later, Castellanos doubled again – moving Realmuto to third after his single – but was left stranded there. He drew a walk in the seventh as well, the team's fourth of the game. Heading into Friday, the Phillies had 12 walks in total, the fewest in the majors. Castellanos playing well enough to keep hitting fourth would be a really promising development for this lineup. 

• Realmuto is so good. Sure, the bases are bigger. Could that result in more caught stealing opportunities for the best catcher in baseball?

• The big bats came to play in the fifth, taking revenge after starter Zack Wheeler gave up a run and an early lead. Back-to-back hits from Turner (a single) and Kyle Schwarber (a double), with Turner scoring from first on the deep liner to right field, put the Phillies up 2-1. The hit from Turner, by the way, gave him one in all seven games this year. 

• The Edmundo Sosa insurance homer was nice, especially after he sat on the bench all afternoon and blasted the first pitch he saw into the stands. It was his first career pinch-hit home run. That dinger could earn him some more playing time with the lineup already bruised and battered a bit.

• As a whole, the pitching was very good Friday, especially when compared to their dreadful first week. Wheeler came close to a quality start but was lifted in the sixth. The bullpen was solid, as Andrew Bellatti, Gregory Soto, José Alvarado and Craig Kimbrel combined to keep the Reds at bay and preserve the victory. Kimbrel actually earned his first save as a Phillie in the 'W.'

Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper raising the "2022" NL championship banner before the game was perfect. Get well soon, guys.

The bad

• Philly entered Friday's home opener hitting just .220 with runners in scoring position — one of the worst marks in baseball. If you recall, the 2022 team was one of the best teams in the league at that, with their .270 average with RISP coming in as the second-best mark in the game.

In the second inning, they stranded three runners on. In the third, they stranded two more on second and third (with two outs). Over the course of a 162-game season, you would expect the Phils to revert closer to the league average, if not better. But missing opportunities against a starting pitcher in Hunter Greene, who was not finding the strike zone well, is a baseball sin the Phillies should not be committing.

• After breezing through four innings (stop me if you've heard that already this season), Wheeler got roughed up a bit in the fifth, perhaps feeling cold in the brisk 54 degrees. He had trouble finding the strike zone and it wound up biting him in the butt, as a base hit from 9-hole hitter José Barrero tied the game at 1 apiece. He did recover with a strikeout of Jonathan India to retire the side without relenting the tie score.

A frame later, two Reds doubles tied the game  2-2 and booted Wheeler from the game after 5.1 solid innings. Surely Thomson thought his ace had good enough stuff to make it deeper into the game, but with a fresh bullpen after the day off, playing it safe was his call.

The ugly

• With no disrespect to the stars on the field Friday, it almost felt like they had the "B" squad to open the season at Citizens Bank Park. The injury bug has already hit extremely hard, with the lineup missing Bryce Harper, Darick Hall, and Rhys Hoskins — Jake Cave and Kody Clemens were starting. Castellanos hit cleanup and Bryson Stott hit fifth. 

This was not their optimal lineup and I think that fans need to take their early season performance in its proper context. This is not a healthy team right now and the clubhouse has seen a healthy number of roster changes already. Eventually, things will become more routine and this team will find and keep its groove.

• The team was introduced and walked from Ashburn Alley to the dugout before the game and, well, the atmosphere was subdued. Maybe it is the injuries, maybe it's the early season struggles, or maybe just a late-arriving crowd to this rescheduled game. Whatever it was, it was lacking in contrast to how absolutely deafeningly loud and electric it was back in October. It was a sellout and it was a fun game to attend even with temperatures in the 50s and some wind. If this team can crawl into the NL East lead though, it could become a really tough ticket to get in no time.

Follow Evan on Twitter:@evan_macy

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