Considering the hype around the 2013 Washington Nationals, expect every Atlanta Braves-Philadelphia Phillies series to take on extra importance this summer.
If these are the two teams jockeying for position—along with the right to chase down Washington—in a muddled National League wild-card race, the games will take on enhanced meaning.
While it's dangerous to glean anything meaningful from a three-game sample size in early April, it's worth paying attention to when the division rivals just completed one-sixth of their season series against each other.
Here are five lessons learned from the Phillies vs. Braves opening series.
Roy Halladay concerns are very, very real in Philadelphia
If the spring training stories of doom didn't cause panic about the future of the two-time Cy Young Award winner, Wednesday's outing in Atlanta certainly did.
The raw numbers—3.1 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 2 HR, 95 pitches—tell most of the story. Halladay was dismal, and Atlanta's bats made him pay for it.
Yet the real trouble lies beyond the box score. After acknowledging that his nine strikeouts in less than four innings is remarkable, nothing else can make a Halladay supporter feel good about his short-term future.
Less than 58 percent of Halladay's pitches were strikes, his lowest strike percentage since 2008. When he left a fastball over the plate, Atlanta batters tattooed it.
Baseball scouts are now comparing his performance to a journeyman.
At this point, Halladay isn't close to the pitcher he once was.
Atlanta is going to hit for big-time power
Adding the Upton brothers to a lineup that already featured Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla was going to provide an offensive boon .
While many focus on the amount this lineup could combine to strike out, the positives likely will outweigh the negatives.
Through three games, even more remarkable when you consider Thursday night's shutout at the hands of Cliff Lee, Atlanta hit six home runs against Philadelphia pitching.
Justin Upton looks locked in and comfortable in his new digs. Heyward can easily be a 30-30 man this season, and Uggla should return to 25-plus home run form.
Even backup catcher Evan Gattis got in on the act, creating a once-in-a-lifetime moment for a parent and millions watching at home.
The moniker of "Best First Baseman in the NL East" has officially been passed
To be fair, Ryan Howard probably already relinquished this crown sometime in 2011.
It's the emergence of Freeman, coupled with the continued malaise and decline that surrounds Howard that makes it official.
While the three-game sample size produces nonsensical numbers (Freeman is hitting .500; Howard is hitting .083), it's following an undeniable trend.
Freeman is coming into his own as a star. Howard is fading.
The decision of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to move Freeman into the cleanup spot, separating the righty-swinging Upton boys seems prescient.
After back-to-back seasons of good, but not spectacular, production, Freeman is locked-in to start 2013. His power to all fields, especially gap-to-gap against opposing left-handers is impressive.
Starting in 2009, Ryan Howard's OPS has taken a dramatic year-by-year tumble: .931, .859, .835, .718.
While recovery from a severe Achilles injury hampered his production further in 2012, it's becoming clear that Howard is far from the impact hitter he was just a handful of years ago and light-years from the 1.031 OPS monster from 2006 and 2007.
Decline is inevitable for power-hitting first basemen in their 30s, but it's Howard's inability to muster any resistance against lefties that will cost Philadelphia dearly.
Last year, Howard hit .173 with a .226 on-base percentage against lefties. If Philadelphia is going to pay $20 million this year for its first baseman, he can't become a platoon player.
Unlike some of his teammates, Cliff Lee isn't in decline
Far too much was made last season of Cliff Lee's 6-9 win-loss record.
On Thursday, he pitched like he did in most outings in 2012: Well enough to earn a victory.
Eight innings, two hits, zero walks and, of course, zero runs allowed. Lee helped Philadelphia escape Atlanta without being swept by dazzling a Braves offense that had hit six home runs in two nights.
The reasons the Phillies didn't have to be worried about Lee heading into 2013 were evident to anyone willing to open their eyes: Judging a pitcher by W-L record is archaic, Lee's 3.06 xFIP was the second-lowest of his career, he allowed the fewest walks per nine innings in baseball and led the world in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
If his performance on Thursday was any indication of his talent level moving forward, he's one part of the Philadelphia roster that certainly isn't in decline.
Evan Gattis' story transcends narratives
Sportswriters have been trumping the rise and fall angle for more than a century. We all love a comeback story, especially when hard work and determination are the driving angle in overcoming tragedy or misfortune.
With so many outlets to learn and digest your sports information, it's easy to see why and how writers would elaborate or stretch a narrative to fit into a neat story line.
In the case of Braves catcher Evan Gattis, there's no need for any of that.
On Wednesday, Gattis recorded his first major league hit. It happened to be a home run off Halladay ... while his dad was being interviewed on the Braves' broadcast.
One last thing: The guy who caught the ball also had a connection to Gattis.
Can Philadelphia overtake Atlanta and Washington in the NL East this season?
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