Phillies-Braves: A Head-to-Head Battle of the NL's Two Best Teams

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Phillies-Braves: A Head-to-Head Battle of the NL's Two Best Teams
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Chasing another pennant

If they're not playing for all the marbles the next few days at Citizens Bank Park, they're playing for a lot of them.

The host Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, owners of the best two records in the National League, open a three-game series tonight with the Phillies leading the Braves by three games.

The two teams will meet again in Atlanta October 1-3 to close the regular season after playing two series apiece against their other divisional rivals.

One has to think that the Phillies—barring a sweep at the hands of their Southern rivals—are in the driver's seat for the NL East crown and an easier path (on paper) through the playoffs.

Taking two out of three will put them in great shape, and a sweep of the Braves will make the division theirs for sure, barring anything 1964-like. I'm not looking up to the heavens as I write this.

While both teams covet the division, the NL math says the following. With the Reds in great shape in the Central and the Cards unable to get going, five teams will be playing for three available playoff spots. In other words, any two of the Phillies, Braves, Giants, Padres, and Rockies will not make the playoffs. With a 2.5-game lead in the wild card, the Braves are in pretty good shape for that consolation prize.

So, how did the two teams get here, and what's likely to occur at CBP the next few days?

The Braves, with extra motivation to give skipper Bobby Cox a memorable final season, have played inspired ball all year, even when faced with a bit of adversity.

Chipper Jones, their most recognizable player and one of the best players in baseball the last 15 years, has struggled through an injury-marred campaign in what may be the last season of his Cooperstown-worthy career. The former MVP has been on the shelf since August 11, freezing his decidedly non-chipper stats: .265/10/46.

No. 2 pitcher Derek Lowe has struggled with a 14-12 record and 4.12 ERA, while their other veteran, ace Tim Hudson, has had a fine season (16-8 with a 2.61 ERA).

It may be to the Phillies' advantage that neither Lowe nor Hudson, having started the Braves' last two wins at Citi Field, will not face the Phils this week.

Offensively, the Chipper-less Braves don't really scare you, yet they have managed to score only 13 fewer runs than the mighty Phillies this year, a negligible difference over the course of 150 games. Their two most recognizable names remaining in the lineup have had solid years.

Jason (the J-Hey Kid) Heyward, who just turned 21, will finish his rookie season with close to 20 homers, 80 RBI, and 90 runs while drawing a lot of walks, as well as his first All-Star appearance.

Catcher Brian McCann, already a five-time All-Star at age 26, is a solid receiver who leads the Braves in both homers and RBI.

As you wonder who else would start for the Phillies among Braves regulars (and McCann and Heyward would be close calls over Carlos Ruiz and Jayson Werth), you may consider two other All-Stars: Omar ("Thanks for picking me, Cholly") Infante, a glorified utility infielder who is hitting .337, and Martin Prado, a second baseman by trade who has manned Jones' hot corner while again hitting over .300 and is in the process of scoring over 100 runs. But would you take those two over Chase Utley and Placido Polanco?

First baseman Derrek Lee came over at the trade deadline from the Cubs, and the veteran still plays a good first base and provides occasional pop—including a towering grand slam yesterday at Citi Field. Other than that, the lineup does not seem to do a whole lot, yet the Braves manage to score about as many runs as the Phils (and good for fourth in the NL). Just like the Phillies, they attack you until the third out of the ninth, and beyond if needed.

Manning the hill against the Phillies will be the hard to spell and usually hard to hit Jair Jurrjens, who missed 10 or 11 starts this season and has not yet matched his 2009 form of 14-10/2.64. Just 24, this guy is really good—when on.

Two other young pitchers, Tommy Hanson (23) and Mike ("I'm almost a") Minor, 22, will get the ball in games two and three. Hanson has followed up a stellar rookie season with pretty good stats, including a 3.62 ERA, but has only a 10-11 record to show for it. Minor has shown lots of promise but is also saddled with a 5.84 ERA in his seven starts.

Bullpen, you ask? Our old friend, the sometimes combustible Billy Wagner, has been typically puzzling. The seven-time All-Star is 7-2 with a terrific 1.43 ERA and a microscopic 0.83 WHIP. He has saved 35 games yet has also blown seven. With all his faults, one would presumably trade the erratic post-2008 Brad Lidge for him unless one values clubhouse chemistry.

The Phillies, two-time defending league champions, find themselves once again as the team to beat in the National League. How they got here is also a tribute to their manager, Charlie Manuel, every bit as much as the 2010 Braves are a testament to Bobby Cox.

It seems like just yesterday that this columnist (one can be more of a "homer" on Bleacher Report) was praying for the Phillies to somehow get lucky enough to land a wild card spot and to have a relatively healthy team once they got there.

Witness that Wilson Valdez has played in more games this year (100) than team leader Jimmy Rollins (82) and has a higher batting average. Superstars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have suffered stints on the DL, and the injury bug has probably hit the Phillies as hard as any team this year not playing in Fenway Park.

In a 2010 campaign that has seen the Phillies battered and bruised and sometimes sleepwalking, they somehow appear to be the class of the NL once again. The biggest reason? A three-headed monster (which I have nicknamed H2O) at the top of their pitching rotation, consisting of Cy Young Award front runner Roy Halladay, the improved, battle-tested Cole Hamels, and longtime Astros ace Roy Oswalt. All have been amazing since Oswalt gratefully accepted his get-out-of-mediocrity pass from Houston.

H2O is scheduled to start the three games of this showdown, and in that order. While it bodes well for the Phillies, one would be foolish to count out the Braves, and it would behoove all Phillies fans and baseball fans in general to watch all nine innings and prepare to watch an extra-inning game or two.

Knowing a sweep would virtually lock up the NL East for the hometown Fightins, the prediction here is that the Braves will find a way to win one of the games. If this holds true, the Phillies will extend their division lead to four, and the Braves will still be on top of the wild-card hunt.

In other words, the Phillies and Braves may very well face each other again even after October 3, and for even bigger marbles than this series offers.

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