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Braves derail Wheeler, cruise to 8-1 home opener victory

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Ronald Acuña Jr. had a huge homer and a huge night as the Braves got all sorts of revenge on the Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Now, that’s more like it.

After being dominated by Zack Wheeler on both sides of the ball last Saturday, the Braves obliterated him and the Phillies for a big home opener victory. Ronald Acuña Jr. was the master of ceremonies for the happy occasion, going 4-for-5 with an epic go-ahead homer and a run-saving catch, while Charlie Morton carved through the Philadelphia bats for most of the night.

For a brief while, this game kind of seemed like it was going to be more of the same that the Braves endured while being swept in Philadelphia to start the season. After Morton threw just two balls in a 1-2-3 top of the first, the Braves ran themselves out of a rally: Wheeler walked both Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna with two outs, but on a pitch in the dirt to Travis d’Arnaud, catcher J.T. Realmuto gunned down Freeman with a snap throw to second. A leadoff walk to d’Arnaud went for naught in the second, and the Phillies struck first against Morton in the third with, you guessed it, some pretty uninspiring offense. Jean Segura reached on an infield single by just barely beating out Dansby Swanson’s throw from short. Wheeler tried to bunt him over with one out and failed to do so, but then hit a chopper back to Morton that functioned as a bunt anyway. That set up Andrew McCutchen to bloop a Morton curveball into left field at 66 mph (the second-weakest contact in the game), scoring Segura. Acuña doubled with one out in the bottom of the inning but was left stranded — see: definitely “more of the same” vibes at this point.

The bottom of the fourth was even worse in this regard, as the Braves got three baserunners but again failed to score. Ozuna’s leadoff single was erased on a double play, and a walk followed by a single were erased when Cristian Pache’s weak contact (the only ball hit more weakly than McCutchen’s RBI) was rolled right to Segura at second base.

Meanwhile, Morton just kept crusing along. He allowed just three singles through five, yet still trailed 1-0. But hey, all’s well that ends well, right? The bottom of the fifth was when the tables turned on Wheeler and the Phillies.

It all started with a very specific instance of turnabout: Morton led off the frame by making good contact (97 mph off the bat) and grounding a single to right by keeping the ball inside the foul line. What happened next, well, words fail me. Just watch. Again and again, if you need to.

Wheeler was having an unusually hard time locating everything all night, but especially his slider, and this one, well, you really couldn’t have put it in a worse location. Acuña vaporized the baseball, and just like that, the Braves had a lead. Oh, but they weren’t done. Ozzie Albies followed up by ripping a fastball down the pipe for a double, and three batters later, d’Arnaud picked on another poorly-placed slider by smashing it into left-center to give the Braves a 3-1 lead.

After that, the game got a bit silly. With two outs and a 2-0 count on Swanson, Joe Girardi went out to talk to Wheeler. But, to his apparent surprise, the pitching coach had already made a mound visit in the frame (after Albies’ two-bagger), so out came Wheeler on a technicality. New pitcher Brandon Kintzler notched a strikeout, but there’s your rules arcana with consequences for the night.

Morton was left in to face the top of the order a third time in the sixth, and it nearly went poorly. He quickly got two outs, but walked Bryce Harper and gave up a flare single to Realmuto, putting runners on the corners. Morton grooved a first-pitch sinker to Alec Bohm that could have been trouble... but Acuña bailed him out, no sweat.

After an entire series of the Phillies blooping the Braves to defeat, it was pretty sweet to see one of their 100+ mph drives in a key, potentially game-tying situation, get snatched away by a defender.

Bohm’s misery, and the Phillies’ misery, would only grow in the bottom of the sixth. Both Austin Riley and Pache reached on back-to-back Bohm errors, one each throwing and fielding. That brought up Ehire Adrianza as a pinch-hitter, and after he failed to get the bunt down (why even bother?), he did this, and everyone went wild:

The Braves have got Panda Power, they’ve got the Adrianza Assault, and unless someone else hit a pinch-hit dinger tonight, they’ve got three of the eight hit so far in 2021. For all the hand-wringing about the bench, well, baseball!

Most of the rest of the game was just cruise control. Acuña reached base twice more, and, though he was erased on a fielder’s choice, contributed to the Braves’ seventh run as Freeman clubbed a two-run homer off former teammate David Hale in the eighth. Nate Jones pitched a scoreless frame despite two baserunners, and Luke Jackson closed out the win by getting Segura to hit into a double play. With that, the Braves improved to 3-4, got some delicious revenge on Wheeler and the Phils, and oh yeah, remained undefeated in home openers at their current ballpark. Good times, good night.

It was a happy homecoming for Morton, who dazzled to the tune of a 7/1 K/BB ratio and just the lone, cheapo run in six innings of work, in his first home start in Atlanta since 2008. It was not a happy outing for Wheeler, who had a poor 4/4 K/BB ratio, got taken to outer space by Acuña, and was yanked from the game because of rules. It was his worst start by essentially any account since August 2019, which also came against the Braves (6 IP, 5 R, 2 HR, 3 K, 4 BB), and his shortest outing since June 2019.

Meanwhile, Acuña currently has a 245 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR in 30 PAs. Fun times. See you tomorrow, when the Braves try for similar happy results as Ian Anderson and Zach Eflin will tangle in another rematch.