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Speed and a little luck key Phillies' first win: ‘Sometimes that's all you need'

Speed and a little luck key Phillies' first win: ‘Sometimes that's all you need' originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Why would a win-now team with enormous expectations open the season with an unproven center fielder who hit .170 in spring training after going 4-for-43 in the playoffs?

Because the Phillies are focusing on what Johan Rojas can do, not what he can't.

The Phils' elite defensive center fielder is 0-for-8 with a walk and a stolen base through three games. His most important moment of the weekend was a simple groundout to shortstop in the seventh inning Sunday. With his blazing speed, Rojas just barely beat out a fielder's choice. It was initially ruled an inning-ending double play but was overturned after replay review.

The inning was extended for Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner and Alec Bohm, who each singled as a one-run deficit became a two-run lead.

Schwarber, Turner and Bohm did the damage, but Rojas set the table.

"That’s baseball, right? You think the inning’s over, you let your guard down a little bit and you get some luck," Bohm said after the 5-4 win. "Sometimes that’s all you need.

"You never want to get swept. We came in today, third game of the season, we really wanted this one. Get some luck like that, kind of get the momentum back and now we've got our guys going in the bullpen with a lead and smell a win.

"He beats that ball by a hair and you see what happens. … I’ve been there, everybody’s been there. It’s a hard game and he’s a young kid. He does a tremendous job for us in center field and the hits are going to come. He’s only going to get more comfortable and experienced. The more at-bats he gets, the more comfortable he’s going to get and you’re going to see his talent really come out."

Manager Rob Thomson has expressed a ton of confidence in Rojas publicly and privately. Rojas is one of their guys. He might not last in the majors all season if he hits .170, but there are other ways he can help, and the Phillies feel that if the first eight players in the order do their job, they can get away with having a light-hitting defensive whiz in the nine-spot.

"Rojas beating the ball out was the biggest part of the game, really," Thomson said. "We pitched well, but to keep that inning alive was really good.

"He’s battling. For the most part, he’s giving us good at-bats, and he’s dynamic, he runs the bases. Just like that play right there, it kept the inning alive just because of his speed. He’s doing fine, for me."

Though they're only two percent into a season that will last another six months, the Phillies needed Sunday's win. The last thing they wanted was the Braves leaving town with a sweep, knowing they wouldn't have a chance to avenge it until July 5-7 in Atlanta.

The first two games were especially ugly, too. Lackluster offense. Bullpen implosions. A poor start from Aaron Nola. An injury scare to Bryce Harper and an actual injury to long man Luis Ortiz.

Sunday started ominously with Ozzie Albies belting a two-run home run for the second straight day, but Kyle Schwarber quickly responded with a leadoff homer, Ranger Suarez settled in and the Phillies kept the game close.

"It's always good to get your first win of the year, and the way we lost those first two games was disappointing," Thomson said. "Getting down 2-0 in the first inning again, that can be demoralizing, but our guys just battled and kept fighting and got it done."

Schwarber played a huge role. His first-inning line-drive homer off Chris Sale stripped some momentum away from the Braves and gave the Citizens Bank Park crowd reason for optimism after two frustrating days. He's off to an impressive start. In the last two days, Schwarber has homered off Sale, singled to left-center field off Max Fried and singled to center against specialist Aaron Bummer. They're three of the toughest left-handed matchups in the game. Lefties have hit .203 with a .256 OBP against Sale lifetime, while Bummer's held them to a .198 batting average.

"Just great," Thomson said of Schwarber. "He’s using the field. That’s what he needs to do. He punched right back in the top of the first and got the momentum a little bit back in our hands."

The Braves are loaded with lefties. Fried and Sale in the rotation, A.J. Minter, Bummer, Tyler Matzek and Dylan Lee in the bullpen. Contrast this to the 2023 NLDS when the Braves' only two lefty options in the 'pen were Minter and an ineffective Brad Hand and they had essentially no way to deal with Bryce Harper.

It's not hard to see why the Braves did what they did. They know they'll need to find a way to retire Harper, Schwarber and an ascending Bryson Stott after being sent home by the Phillies two postseasons in a row.

"You see them start acquiring these lefties, tough matchup lefties, the writing’s kind of on the wall," Bohm said. "That’s how the game’s going, you’ve got these lefty specialists, and all these bullpens around the league are getting nastier and nastier each year. They made some additions, they’ve got some good arms out there and it’s a competitive at-bat with every guy that’s down there.

"It’s a really good team. There’s a lot of respect on both sides. It’s a lot of the best players in our game on the field when we’re matched up. They obviously kind of put it on us those first two games and we wanted to come out and get one today."

That they did, and now they won't face a lineup in the Braves' stratosphere for over a month. The Phillies' next seven series are against teams with a combined .430 winning percentage last season who did little to improve over the winter. There's still a chance to get out to the hot start they've prioritized.