Philadelphia Phillies: Alone in First, but Entering Atlanta Braves' New World

Matt Goldberg@@tipofgoldbergCorrespondent IMay 6, 2011

The Phillies stand at 21-9, two games ahead of the Marlins, and four-and-a-half games clear of the Atlanta Braves—who come to South Philly tonight for the start of a three-game series.

Starting with tonight’s contest, the Phils will play 20 games in 21 days exclusively against teams with winning records.

It will be interesting to see what the standings will look like at the end of this 20-game stretch. As of today, the NL East looks like this:

Philadelphia Phillies    21-9

Florida Marlins            19-11

Atlanta Braves            18-15

Washington Nats        14-17

New York Mets           13-18

To most pundits, the biggest surprise of the division is the Florida Marlins. who are doing it mostly with great starting pitching (led by Josh Johnson, who is still 3-1, 1.68 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, even after getting hit around a little by the Cardinals yesterday). To their credit, the Marlins are also doing so despite a very slow start from superb shortstop Hanley Ramirez (.200, 1 HR and an OPS of .582).

Right behind them are, of course, the Braves—the team that many predicted would be the biggest obstacle to the Phillies capturing their fifth straight NL East title. For the first few weeks, Atlanta only got in their own way, but they are starting to jell and arrive at Citizens Bank Park riding the confidence of a five-game win streak.

The Braves are waiting for former Marlins all-star second baseman Dan Uggla (.211/.268/.383) to produce, and second-year star Jason Heyward has yet to explode, but they have a stockpile of great young arms that has carried them to a league-best 2.96 ERA.

In assessing the Braves’ pitching staff, you may wish to consider this: Opening Day starter Derek Lowe, who has always pitched well versus the Phillies (7-5, 3.17 ERA in 15 career starts) has the worst ERA of their top five starters at a respectable 3.71.

The other four Braves starters all have sub-3.00 ERAs in the early going, led by Jair Jurrjens, just 25, with a 3-0 record, 1.52 ERA and a WHIP of 1.01. He is every bit as hard to hit as his name is hard to pronounce and spell.

Tommy Hanson, 24, has gotten off to a 4-3 start, but has pitched even better than his record (2.63 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) indicates. Veteran Tim Hudson, coming off a one-hit shutout of the Brewers, is 4-2 with a 2.86 ERA and an 0.95 WHIP and Brandon Beachy, 25, is 1-1 / 2.98 / 0.97.

The Braves’ rotation, while not as celebrated as the Phillies’ own R2C2 (or their own Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-led groups of the '90s), has the stuff to keep them in almost every game they play.

The Phillies, certainly, have gotten terrific pitching from their vaunted rotation this year, despite Joe Blanton’s ineffectiveness (and assignment to the Disabled List) and Roy Oswalt missing a turn for personal reasons.

Tonight’s starter, Cliff Lee, is winless in his last three starts, but has looked anywhere from good to dominating in four of his six starts this year. The veteran lefty is stuck on two wins (2-2) but his stats have been good:  a 3.66 ERA, a WHIP of 1,12 and his typically wonderful K/BB ratio of 44/6 in 39.1 innings.

Lee’s only poor outing of 2011 took place in Atlanta on April 8. He was shelled for 10 hits and six earned runs in a short 3.1 innings of work. In four career starts versus the Braves, Lee has yet to really solve them, carrying a 1-2 mark with a 6.98 ERA.

It would be an overstatement for me to write that a loss to the Braves tonight would signal a crisis for either Lee or the team. On the other hand, four straight starts without a win for their co-ace would be cause for at least minor concern.

Indeed, a win tonight (preferably, one earned by Lee) would get what appears to be a very difficult 20-game stretch off to an auspicious start.

In the next three weeks, the Phillies will do battle six times with the Braves, three times apiece with the Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, two apiece with the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies and three more with the AL West’s Texas Rangers.

These next six opponents—four of whom can make the postseason—have a combined record of 106-81, good for a .567 winning percentage, which is much better than they have faced in their first 30 games (a combined .464 percentage).

On the other hand, the Phillies have streaked to a MLB-best .700 winning percentage, despite missing Chase Utley, Brad Lidge and Domonic Brown for all 30 games, and seeing several other important players—including Carlos Ruiz, Jose Contreras and Joe Blanton—currently disabled.

To put all of this in perspective, I offer you baseball cliché No. 753: Baseball seasons are marathons, not sprints. Indeed, even after this 20-game stretch is in the books, there will be 112 more games to play in the regular season.

Even so, a win by Cliff Lee and an early lead of five-and-one-half games over the Braves, will look terrific tonight.

And then we can ponder what the standings, the starting lineup and the pitching rotation will (and should) look like on May 26.


Gold Notes - Update:

The first game of the twenty did not go well for Phillies Nation.

Derek Lowe gave up only two hits in six innings, which is all the Phillies got for the game.

Cliff Lee struck out 16 Braves, and only issued one free pass, but had one bad inning (three runs on three hits) which were sandwiched around striking out three batters looking. Wow!

The bottom of the seventh told the tale. Victorino singled to start things, followed by a long double by Placido Polanco that took an unfortunate hop over the fence, or it would have been a run-scoring double or triple. It should not have mattered, but reliever Ed O'Flaherty came in and looked like a prime Randy Johnson, whiffing Ryan Howard, Ben Francisco and Raul Ibanez back-to-back-to-back.

Is Cliff Lee this year's hard-luck pitcher?


For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, as well as writing, speaking and interview requests, please e-mail: or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.


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