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Gabe Kapler draws criticism with quick hook of Aaron Nola

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Opening Day was looking great for the Phillies as the club took a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning against the Braves. Starter Aaron Nola was humming along, shutting the Braves out on two hits and a walk with three strikeouts. Oh, how the tides would turn.

Nola ran into a tiny bit of trouble, surrendering a leadoff double to Ender Inciarte in the bottom of the sixth. After getting Ozzie Albies to fly out, manager Gabe Kapler came out and replaced Nola — having thrown only 68 pitches to that point — with lefty reliever Hoby Milner to face Freddie Freeman. Freeman promptly deposited a 3-2 Milner fastball into the seats in right field, cutting the Phillies’ lead to 5-2. Milner would see his way out of the inning, but the Braves weren’t done.

In the bottom of the eighth, Kapler took Rhys Hoskins out of the game to improve his defense, putting Odubel Herrera in center field and moving Nick Williams from right to left and Aaron Altherr from center to right. Lefty Adam Morgan, who got the final out of the seventh inning, stayed in the game. He yielded a leadoff homer to Albies, making it a 5-3 game, then walked Freeman. After striking out Nick Markakis, Edubray Ramos relieved him. Ramos issued a walk to Kurt Suzuki to bring up Preston Tucker with runners on first and second. Ramos threw a pitch in the dirt that Knapp couldn’t handle. Attempting to nab the lead advancing runner, Knapp threw to third base but his throw was poor and skipped into left field. Tucker tied the game at five-all with a single up the middle. Mercifully, Ramos was able to see his way out of the inning without any further damage.

The bullpen continued to disappoint in the bottom of the ninth as closer Hector Neris took the hill. Neris allowed a single on a weak grounder to Charlie Culberson, who promptly advanced to second base with a sacrifice bunt. Albies flied out for the second out of the inning. After intentionally walking Freeman with first base open, Markakis walked the Braves off 8-5 winners with a three-run home run.

After the game, Phillies fans were irate with Kapler’s decision-making in the game. They were mostly mad that he yanked Nola with only 68 pitches even though he was cruising. I think it was a defensible decision. Nola was going through the lineup for a third time, and just about every starter has worse results the third time through the order. As research from Mitchel Lichtman showed at Baseball Prospectus in 2013, pitch count doesn’t have an effect on this. In other words, a pitcher is about as likely to perform poorly the third time through the order at 68 pitches as he is at 85 or 95. Nola, over his career, has allowed a .706 OPS to batters the first time he sees them and .618 the second time, but .755 the third time.

Additionally, Kapler was playing the matchups with his nine-man bullpen. Yes, nine-man bullpen. Kapler’s options were to let Nola face Freeman a third time or bring in Hoby Milner, a lefty reliever who held left-handed hitters to a .464 OPS last season. At Triple-A last season, Milner held lefties to a .508 OPS compared to .856 against righties. Furthermore, if you put stock in small sample match-up stats, Freeman has owned Nola historically. Even though Milner got burned by Freeman, Kapler’s decision was the correct one.

Teams up five runs going into the bottom of the sixth inning on the road win about 95 percent of the time. The Phillies’ bullpen was about average last year and is arguably now above-average, especially if one puts stock in, for example, Morgan’s second-half resurgence. It’s the first game of a 162-game season. Take the long view: don’t make Nola throw pitches he doesn’t need to throw. He’s the ace of the staff, but he’s still only 24 years old. What’s more important: Nola staying healthy, or winning a March game against the Braves in a season in which they’re expected to win fewer than 50 percent of their games? The Phillies have two more relievers on the roster than teams typically carry, so they can afford to go to the bullpen early. It isn’t the third game of a seven-game playoff series where you need to carefully manage workloads.

The Phillies win despite the quick hook on Nola almost every time if one was able to play out the game 100 or 1,000 times. They didn’t today, which stinks if you’re a fan, but it doesn’t mean Kapler’s process was wrong. If you’re at the blackjack table and stand with 20 against a dealer 6, but the dealer still finds his way to 21, that doesn’t mean your decision to hit was wrong. Sometimes your pitchers stink. Sometimes the opposing team executes well. It was a combination of both today for the Phillies, so you tip your cap to the Braves and move on.

Kapler was always going to have his decisions as a manager put under the magnifying glass because people who think like he does are still a minority in baseball culture, even though just about every front office is on board already. People are also skeptical of him because of some questionable stuff he’s blogged about and he doesn’t look like your typical baseball lifer. Fans are biased going into the season, having already made up their mind about whether or not they like him. Those that don’t like him will use today’s game as evidence he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If the Phillies had won today, those same people wouldn’t have said anything because it doesn’t support their viewpoint. It’s the very essence of confirmation bias.

After the game, Kapler said, “Look, tonight, the decisions didn’t work out in our favor. But I’m very confident that over a long period of time that they will.”

He’s right.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 6, Nationals 1: Max Scherzer tossed six shutout innings and the pen blanked the Nats in the seventh, but Washington clung to only a 1-0 lead thanks to an almost-as-good start from Jacob deGrom. In the eighth, Dave Martinez called on Kyle Barraclough to hold things down. He got two out but also put two runners on, so Martinez called on Sean Doolittle to get a four-out save in a tight game. Tough order, but Doolittle’s good. Usually.

Doolittle hit the first batter he faced to load the bases, gave up a bases-clearing double to Juan Lagares, intentionally walked a guy and then gave up a three-run jack to Rajai Davis. The best part: Davis was just called up the Mets mere hours before. Hell, he had already taken batting practice for Syracuse, who was playing at Lehigh Valley. He took an Uber to New York, got there by the third inning, got lost and was finally suited up not long before entering the game as a pinch hitter.

As I wrote once upon a time, an essential part of living life is dealing with stuff when you’re basically unprepared. When you’re just thrown into a situation for which you didn’t have time or opportunity to gear up. Here’s a salute to Rajai Davis, who may not have been prepared to face a big league pitcher in a big league stadium when he woke up yesterday morning but who rose to the occasion because, really, what else can you do?

Cubs 8, Phillies 4: Cole Hamels took on the Phillies for the first time but, more importantly, he took on Cole Irvin in what I’m going to assume was a “Highlander” situation. Hamels didn’t pitch that well or get the win but he did a lot better than Irvin, so I assume Irvin’s head was cut off. There can only be one. Albert Almora Jr. hit a grand slam. Anthony Rizzo hit a three-run bomb to help the Cubs get out of an early hole. Let’s call it a Cole hole.

[Ed. — Let’s not]

White Sox 9, Astros 4: Not a great night for Coles. The White Sox beat up on Cole, Gerrit for six runs on seven hits. Eloy Jiménez hit two homers in this one and the Chisox even turned a triple play. A good one, too! Around-the-horn, bang-bang-bang, not one of those janky “baserunner screwed up and stood in the baseline as a guy caught a pop fly, stepped on the bag, and tagged out the confused runner” things. Watch:

Brewers 11, Reds 9: Zach Davies, with a 1.54 ERA, faced off against Luis Castillo, owner of a 1.90 ERA. So naturally 20 runs were scored. The Reds led 6-1 and blew it, then led 8-6 and blew it before the Brewers pulled away. The 8-6 lead went away when Yasmani Grandal hit a two-run homer to tie it. He also started a double play when, with the bases loaded, a strikeout pitch got past him but ricocheted right back to him. The guy on first took off but no one else did because they saw the ricochet. Grandal threw down to first to retire the struck out batter then the Brewers got the baserunner out in a rundown. Just how they drew it up.

Yankees 7, Orioles 5: The Bombers hit five more homers against an Orioles pitching staff that is going to do some ghastly things to the record books before this season is out. Thairo Estrada, D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres went deep in the first three innings go give New York a 5-0 lead. Gary Sánchez homered in the fourth to make it 6-1 and Torres homered again in the fifth to make it 7-2. Sánchez has homered in three straight games. Torres has 12 homers on the year. Ten of them have come against the Orioles.

Red Sox 6, Blue Jays 5: This thirteen-inning game ended twenty minutes before midnight. Today they get started at 12:37PM. Look for some super crisp play from the Sox and Jays today! Here Michael Chavis hit a tiebreaking homer in the 13th inning to give Boston the win. Rafael Devers homered earlier for his third blast in as many games. That gave Boston a lead that Marcus Walden could not hold thanks to a ninth inning rally from Toronto that made everyone stay up late. Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel was, I imagine, tucked into bed back wherever he calls home and will be a fresh as a daisy this morning.

Athletics 7, Indians 2: Jefry Rodríguez didn’t fool A’s batters, who touched him for five runs in four innings while Frankie Montas blanked the tribe for six while striking out nine. Mark Canha homered and drove in three and Nick Hundley on a three-hit day as the A’s won their sixth game in a row and took their 10th of 14 overall.

Royals 8, Cardinals 2; Cardinals 10, Royals 3: New rule idea: when teams split a doubleheader the team which outscores the other in the aggregate gets some sort of bonus in the standings. So, here, since the Cards “beat” the Royals 12-11, each team gets one win and the Cards get, um, a point on top. Wait, that would require some sort of hockey-style points system too. OK, we can work with that. It might require some more changes. Like, when you lose a getaway day game in under two and a half hours, you lose a point as a “phoning it in tax.” There are all kinds of variations we can come up with here. Let’s blow this dang game up!

Oh, here: Brad Keller tossed two-hit, two-run baseball and the Royals — boosted by a Jorge Soler three-run homer — beat up on Michael Wacha in the first game. In the second game Homer Bailey got shelled, failing to make it out of the second inning, while Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Kolton Wong all went deep. Adam Wainwright was shaky but John GantAndrew MillerCarlos Martinez and John Brebbia combined for four innings of scoreless relief to disabuse Kansas City of any notions of a comeback.

Rockies 9, Pirates 3: For the second time in a couple of weeks Josh Bell hit a homer into the Allegheny River on the fly. That was nice but, at least until my points-system rules changes come into effect which would provide Bell a “cool factor” bonus, it was just a solo shot. Meanwhile, Rockies batters Daniel Murphy and Tony Wolters each hit three-run homers in the early going. Rockies starter Jon Gray allowed three runs and seven hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings. One of those strikeouts was of Bell, on three pitches no less, in his next plate appearance after the splash homer. That would take a half point away, by the way.

Rangers 2, Mariners 1: The sweep. And the seventh win in eight games for Texas. Hunter Pence homered. Seattle is now in last place where most people expected them to be. That opening series in Japan seems like a thousand years ago.

Padres 5, Diamondbacks 2: Eric Lauer allowed one run on four hits over seven frames Eric Hosmer drove in a couple. Kirby Yates got his 20th save of the year. That’s a 65-save pace for a team that’s just above .500.

Rays 8, Dodgers 1: A couple of solo homers had this one tied at one entering the bottom of the seventh, with Dylan Floro taking over for the Dodgers to start the inning. He hit a guy, gave up two straight singles, then a homer and just like that L.A. was down 5-1. The homer — a three-run shot — came from Avisail García and chased Floro. Caleb Ferguson then came in, walked a guy, struck out two, then hit a guy and surrendered a three-run bomb to Kevin Kiermaier. Not what you want out of your bullpen.

Marlins 6, Tigers 3: The Marlins were down 3-0 entering the sixth before coming back. Brian Anderson hit a two-run shot for Miami, Neil Walker doubled in a couple and Garrett Cooper hit his first career homer to power the comeback. That’s five straight wins for the Fish. Eight straight losses for the Tigers, whose early season friskiness has long since passed.

Braves 9, Giants 2: Jeff Samardzija allowed six unearned runs but, as we said the other day, not all unearned runs are created equally. He put a couple of guys on and the would-be out number three of the inning was postponed due to an error, but before it was finally recorded he gave up a run on a wild pitch and coughed up homers to Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman. So, yeah, take that “unearned” stuff with a grain of salt. The Giants couldn’t do much against Max Fried, who allowed two over six, and nothing against the Atlanta pen which tossed two shutout innings.

Twins vs. Angels — POSTPONED:

Got on board a westbound seven forty-seven
Didn’t think before deciding what to do
Oh, that talk of opportunities, TV breaks and movies
Rang true, sure rang true
Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours