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Atlanta Braves: 10 Keys to Keeping the Phillies in the Rear-View Mirror

Matt PowersCorrespondent IIMay 2, 2012

Atlanta Braves: 10 Keys to Keeping the Phillies in the Rear-View Mirror

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    In order for the Atlanta Braves to have a successful season, one of the keys will be keeping the Philadelphia Phillies behind them in the standings. The Phillies are struggling this season and have major issues with their offense. Allowing a team with those issues to finish ahead of them in the standings could very well mean disappointment for the Braves.

    This article takes a look at 10 keys to staying ahead of the Phillies this season.

Win the Head-to-Head Games

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    The first thing on the list is the most obvious: Win the head-to-head games against the Phillies. In order to keep the Phillies behind them in the standings, the Braves will need to win these games.

    The fact that the Braves lost the first game of the season against the Phillies on Tuesday and that they have blown two leads in the second game as I am writing this isn't a good sign.

    They must win at least one game of the series, because potentially getting swept at home by a struggling Philadelphia team makes it look like the Phillies have the Braves' number.

A Healthy Jason Heyward

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    The Braves won't reach their potential this season without Jason Heyward in the lineup. His ability to work pitchers and come up with clutch hits are a big boost for the Braves no matter where they use him in the lineup. At the same time, the club doesn't have anyone near his talent level to replace him.

    Heyward made it through almost a full month without having to miss time with an injury, but has been out this week due to a strained oblique. It is important that the Braves allow him to fully heal before putting him back in the lineup, but it is most important that he is in the lineup.

Jair Jurrjens' Return to Form

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    The Braves need Jair Jurrjens to come back and pitch like the old Jair Jurrjens. While fans can't expect him to pitch like he did in the first half of 2011, they can expect him to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. That is all the Braves' rotation needs, one more solid starter to not have any holes.

    The biggest part of why the Braves need a return to form from Jurrjens is because Randall Delgado hasn't impressed in April. For that reason, the Braves can use a solid Jurrjens with Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor to really strengthen the rotation.

    There was a good sign earlier this week when Jurrjens pitched very well in his first Triple-A start, which could be the first step to re-gaining his confidence.

Keeping Chipper Jones Healthy

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    One of the keys for the Braves this season is keeping Chipper Jones healthy. Jones isn't just a strong hitter, but a key leader for the Braves. Not having him in the lineup certainly hurts, as the Braves started 0-4 without him this season.

    Keeping him in the lineup will be important, though not an easy task for a 40-year-old with an injury issue.

Keeping Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel Fresh

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    Part of the reason the Braves crumbled down the stretch last year is because key young relievers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel struggled down the stretch. Both were over-worked, as Kimbrel pitched in 79 games and Venters appeared in 85.

    In order to stay ahead of the Phillies, the Braves will need to do a better job of managing the work load for their young pitchers. They need to have Venters and Kimbrel pitching well throughout the entire season.

The Left Side of the Phillies' Infield

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    One of the keys for keeping the Phillies in the rear-view mirror is the aging left side of the Phillies' infield. Third baseman Placido Polanco, age 36, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, age 33, are both really struggling to start the season. Polanco is hitting .250 with a .586 OPS while Rollins is hitting .247 with a .573 OPS.

    As long as both Rollins and Polanco keep struggling, especially Rollins, the Phillies' offense will have its struggles.

Michael Bourn Continuing to Get on Base

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    Michael Bourn has been red-hot recently, getting on base at a ridiculous rate. Bourn getting on base is a great thing for the Braves, as he is able to create runs with his speed, which no one else on the team is really capable of doing.

    The Braves need Bourn to continue getting on base and creating runs in order to maximize their potential, as he is the first true leadoff threat in the lineup since Rafael Furcal left town.

Brian McCann Staying Productive for the Full Season

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    One thing that has hurt the Braves in the last few years would be injuries to Brian McCann. While he hasn't suffered through any major injuries, he has dealt with a bunch of minor setbacks which have held back his potential numbers, especially in each of the last two seasons.

    For the Braves to stay ahead of the Phillies, they need McCann to be fully healthy and productive for the full season. An injury to his side last weekend could be something to fear, especially considering the physical demands of the catcher position.

    The Braves only have one real 30-plus home run guy on the team in Dan Uggla, so they cannot afford to lose the player expected to finish second on the team in homers.

A Return to Form for Eric O'Flaherty

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    One of the keys to the Braves' success last year was that they had three guys at the back of their bullpen that were dominant.

    The bullpen had long been a problem for Atlanta. Though it had improved in recent years, last season it was arguably the best in all of baseball, as it featured three guys that could come in and shut down any team.

    Eric O'Flaherty emerged last year as the third shutdown pitcher in what was a breakout season. O'Flaherty posted a 0.98 ERA over 78 games and was expected to pitch well again this year since he entered 2012 at just 28 years old.

    O'Flaherty hasn't been that same pitcher this year, however. Headed into today, he had a 4.91 ERA in eight games, and that was before giving up three runs and the lead against the Phillies tonight.

    For the Braves to keep ahead of the Phillies, they need O'Flaherty to start pitching well again.

Figuring Out the Mets

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    Almost as important as playing well against the Phillies, the Braves must figure out the New York Mets. The Mets were unanimously picked to finish last in the NL East this season, but that hasn't stopped them from having early success against the Braves.

    The Mets swept the Braves in New York to open the season and then took one of three in Atlanta. The Braves cannot afford to drop games to the least talented team in the NL East when the Phillies are a veteran team, the young Nationals are looking like contenders and the Marlins have more talent than usual.

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