A belated happy Fourth of July to everyone, and, with that, to the Philadelphia Phillies as well.
In their series finale against baseball's best team—the 52-32 Pittsburgh Pirates—on Thursday, the Phillies managed to take the series with a 6-4 victory.
The Phillies' bats supplied Cole Hamels with enough run support for him to earn his third win of the 2013 season, lowering his ERA to 4.38. The Phillies also handed Pirates superstar rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole his first major league loss.
It was a fantastic and much-needed morale boost for the Phillies, who now sit at 41-45, nine games back of the division-leading Atlanta Braves at 49-35.
The Phillies' upcoming weekend series against those Braves gives Philadelphia an opportunity to gain some ground in the NL East race. The two teams haven't faced off since the third game of the season.
A Phillies sweep, or even a series victory, won't be easy, with the Braves sending out their best starting arms to the mound in Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen. But it will definitely be possible for the Phillies to win all three games and gain some ground.
Here are five keys to the Phillies doing just that and making the NL East race much more interesting.
To sweep the Braves, the Phillies obviously need to win the first game of the series, thereby making a statement that the series isn't going to be a giveaway to the Braves.
The Phillies need to strike early, both on offense and with their pitching. Fortunately, they are primed to do just that.
In the first game of this series, the Phillies face a formidable opponent in Tim Hudson. However, the 2013 season hasn't been as kind to him as others in recent memory. Hudson is 4-7 with a 4.22 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. He is also only 3-3 with a 3.83 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in nine career starts at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies have a more vulnerable Hudson to their advantage.
However, the biggest threat the Phillies will pose won't be their offense. It will be their ace pitcher of 2013, Cliff Lee, who will take the mound against the Braves on Friday night.
Lee has been absolutely stellar this season, going 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA and minuscule 0.97 WHIP. Lifetime against Atlanta, he boasts a 5-4 record with a 2.74 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 11 starts. Those are great numbers for the Phillies to have on their side.
This game could either be a blowout by the Phillies or a pitchers' duel. With the most strikeouts of any lineup in the National League, the Braves should struggle against Lee to some extent.
It'll be an interesting matchup, but the Phillies need to make sure that they win by a wide margin and set the tone for the remainder of the series.
Paul Maholm isn't a "Phillie killer," but he's got the goods to fool them.
What the Phillies have to do is outsmart the goods and hit like they can when they're swinging the bats well.
Maholm is the only left-handed starting pitcher Atlanta will trot out in the series, but he's not the best southpaw the Braves have on their staff. Mike Minor has arguably been the better of the two lefties the Braves have in their rotation, and the Phillies need to take that into account on Saturday.
FanGraphs makes it clear that Maholm isn't an overpowering pitcher by any means. His fastball has averaged just 87.6 miles per hour in 2013, and his two-seam fastball, which is his most-used pitch, averages just 86.8 mph this year.
Stats guru Dan Brooks of BrooksBaseball.net elaborated on the movement that Maholm's pitches produce, both vertical and horizontal. In both regards, Maholm has less movement against left-handed batters, which the Phillies have more of in their lineup.
Phillies batters need to approach Maholm with the mentality that they're going to be patient with his pitches and just swing if it's over the plate. They can't chase everything he tosses, and in theory, that shouldn't be too difficult since his pitches don't move all that much.
With Kyle Kendrick coming off an extremely mild concussion and Maholm coming off his last start, in which he pitched 5.2 scoreless innings, the Phillies need to play smart baseball in what will be the most crucial game of the series.
They should be able to mash Maholm, and they most certainly can if they just hit what's offered to them.
Kris Medlen will be the Phillies' final opponent in this series, and he's probably the easiest of them all.
Fresh in the minds of the casual baseball fan (or, at least, in my mind) is Medlen's incredible 2012 season, in which he went 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA after returning from Tommy John surgery. However, it's 2013 now, and with that has come a different Medlen.
This season, Medlen stands at 6-7 with a 3.11 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. FanGraphs' FIP and xFIP stats show a different story for him, though, with numbers at 3.93 and 4.06, respectively. Medlen's BABIP is also .293 as opposed to .261 from last season, rendering him a much more average pitcher than before.
The Braves' defensively elite outfield, along with an infield with above-average gloves, has helped keep his ERA among the better ERAs in baseball. But the way Medlen's actually pitched suggests he's due for a regression at some point.
In his only outing of the season against the Phillies, Medlen was hittable, surrendering two runs on six hits, walking four and striking out just three batters en route to a loss. While his walk rates have since decreased, the Phillies were able to figure out Medlen then, when his start was the most feared of the Opening Day series. That's no longer the case.
The Phillies need to carry over their momentum from both the series (which would be 2-0 in their favor at this point) and their previous game against Medlen and get inside his head quickly. This could be an easy win for the Phillies if they play their cards right. All they have to do is hit him, but keep it competitive enough that they can outlast having to face the Braves bullpen.
Although the Phillies will want to light up the Braves' starting pitchers, they may want to be careful with how much they do so.
The Braves' best weapon isn't their defense. It's certainly not their offense, and it's not their starting rotation. No, the Braves' best tool is their bullpen, as is evidenced by its 2.68 ERA, good for the best in baseball.
Offseason acquisition Jordan Walden has been as good as they come, posting a 2.63 ERA. And though Craig Kimbrel has been slightly more hittable in 2013 than usual, he's still one of the top closers in the majors with a 1.48 ERA. More importantly, the Phillies have never had success against Kimbrel, so they'll want to steer clear of the Braves' relievers.
What might be ideal for the Phillies is if they keep the games close until the sixth or seventh innings and then break out. Of course, such a hypothetical is just that, and the Phillies shouldn't reserve all offense for one inning nor tank the innings preceding it. But if they can avoid Kimbrel, Walden and the rest of the Braves' lights-out bullpen, the Phillies will be in the best shape possible for the duration of this series.
As of late, the Phillies have been doing one thing right: They've been scoring more runs. Over their last 30 games, the Phillies have averaged 4.63 runs per game and 4.73 runs per game over their last 15 games. Sure, this is in no small part thanks to their 16-1 routing over the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 28, but the runs provided count nonetheless.
The Phillies' recent stretch of run support has been their best in 2013. Such a trend could lead to an increase in wins, both in general, in decisive fashion and for Cole Hamels.
Heading into their last series against the Pirates, the Phillies scored 14 runs. Against the Dodgers, they mustered 24 runs. And when they squared off against the San Diego Padres, the Phillies drove in 16 runs. These are all teams that have been hot and/or victorious throughout the season, yet the Phillies have found a way to provide offensive support.
The fact that the Phillies are driving in more runs can be attributed to a hot Chase Utley, Delmon Young, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown. More importantly, the fact that the Phillies are driving in these runs shows that they can still compete with the best of them and that a late-season run toward the playoffs is still within reach.
And if they can do this against the Braves, the Phillies will inch even closer to finding themselves in the playoff hunt for what may be the final time for quite some time.