PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves left spring training with the label of fashionable young teams on the upswing, but it was hard to know precisely how that improvement might translate in the standings. Realistically, this season was supposed to be about patience, continued development and taking the steps necessary to try to supplant the (potentially) post-Bryce Harper Washington Nationals at the top of the National League East in 2019.
Seven weeks into the season, the two clubs are pushing their timetables -- and their meetings have taken on a greater import than anyone might have predicted in March.
The Braves entered the opener of a three-game series Monday night with a 28-17 record and a 1½-game lead in the division. The Phillies carved that to a half-game with a 3-0 victory. A garden-variety crowd of 21,284 was on hand to see it. But if you looked closely enough, you saw two teams that are enjoying being relevant again.
"It makes your heart beat a little faster in the dugout,'' Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "As a fan of baseball, it's nice to see two teams with really rich history and amazing fans and a rich history of winning compete for first place in the National League East. I'm a baseball fan at heart, and thinking about that gives me goosebumps.''
It certainly has been a while. Monday's game marked the first time since September 2011 that the Phillies have played a divisional opponent at Citizens Bank Park with both teams at least eight games over .500. Coincidentally, Atlanta was the opponent seven years ago. For sake of reference, the pitching matchups in that series consisted of Cliff Lee vs. Derek Lowe, Vance Worley vs. Tim Hudson and Roy Oswalt vs. Brandon Beachy.
The Phillies eventually rode the Chase Utley-Ryan Howard-Jimmy Rollins train past its optimal destination point. Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann moved on from Atlanta, and the past few years have brought a steady run of losing in both cities. The Phillies began a streak of five straight sub-.500 seasons in 2013, and the Braves logged an aggregate 286-361 record while sending Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Bobby Cox, John Smoltz and John Schuerholz to the Hall of Fame from 2014 to 2017. Jones will join them in Cooperstown in July.
The teams have asserted themselves this year in large part because of some dynamic young talent off the farm. With Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. creating havoc at the top of the order and Freddy Freeman and Nick Markakis banging out hits behind them, Atlanta leads the league in runs, OPS and total bases. The Braves posted their most inspirational win of the season Sunday, when they scored six runs in the ninth inning to beat the Marlins 10-9.
Outfielder Odubel Herrera leads the NL with a .348 batting average, and second baseman Cesar Hernandez is playing like an All-Star, but the Phillies have exceeded expectations largely because of their pitching. A rotation led by Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez ranks fourth in the league in ERA, and recent call-up Seranthony Dominguez has fortified a solid bullpen.
Atlanta won six of the teams' first nine meetings, but the Phillies asserted themselves Monday with shutdown pitching, exceptional defense and timely power. Pivetta combined with Dominguez and Hector Neris on a five-hitter. Nick Williams hit a solo homer, Aaron Altherr added a late two-run shot, and the Phillies made several eye-catching plays in the field. Most notable: a diving catch by Rhys Hoskins in left field and an athletic, up-the-middle play by third baseman Maikel Franco.
Catcher Jorge Alfaro, who's making a bigger impression every week, finished off the Braves with an exclamation point. He sprang from his crouch on an Ender Inciarte bunt, ranged out to pitcher's mound on the third-base side and threw a strike to first base for the final out of the game. Kapler, who played with future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez in Texas in 2000 and 2001, said he doubted that even the great Pudge would have made the play.
"I don't think anybody else makes that play,'' Kapler said. "I've been with them both, and from the standpoint of athleticism, arm strength, foot speed and quickness, they're neck-and-neck.''
Alfaro, who knows Rodriguez from his days as a young player in the Rangers chain, was caught off-guard and properly humble about the comparison.
"I don't know if I believe that,'' he said. "But it means a lot to me that the manager has a lot of confidence in me.''
The two games left in this week's series will bring the season total of meetings between the Phillies and Braves to 12. Then they'll take a nice, long sabbatical from each other. They won't meet again until a four-game series at SunTrust Park starting Sept. 20.
Who knows where they'll be in the NL East standings by then? But the talent on the two rosters suggests that they're on the cusp of playing a lot more meaningful games over the next few seasons.
"It's cool to see other people reaching for the same things that you are as an organization,'' Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. "And obviously, it's fun to compete. That's why we all do this. To gain that familiarity and be excited about things to come is cool to see. We're both wanting to get after it with higher stakes on a regular basis. It's fun to be a part of.''