Philadelphia Phillies: 7 Reasons They Hope To Miss the Atlanta Braves in October
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The last time fans saw the Philadelphia Phillies on the diamond in October, they were dodging a San Francisco Giants team sprinting toward the mound to celebrate an NLCS title at Citizens Bank Park. As the MLB season comes to a close, an even more talented Philadelphia ballclub looks for fall redemption against a much different National League playoff landscape.
Last October's failure came courtesy of a matchup that anyone following the Phillies had come to fear. After dispatching the Dodgers from the postseason in each of the past two years, the Giants were the latest to challenge the Phillies from the NL West. Viewed as the only team that could compete with Philadelphia because of its deep rotation, San Francisco rode consistency on the mound and situational hitting to a victory over the Phillies in six games.
What caused baseball's best regular-season team to falter in the last NLCS was an inability to overcome the only team that matched up with their strengths and weaknesses. Whether it was good right-handed starters combined with gifted lefties, a shutdown bullpen or a raucous home environment, the Giants always had an answer for the favored Phils.
Looking ahead to the upcoming playoff tournament, the Phillies are sure to be heavy favorites to represent the National League in the World Series, just as they were before being ushered out of contention a year ago. Standing in their way and hoping to match up with Philadelphia much like the Giants did are the NL East rival Atlanta Braves.
Sporting a successful youth movement and a very strong core, the Braves could potentially show Philadelphia a very sudden exit in a seven-game series. Because of the intriguing similarities to the Giants team, the Phillies must show a great amount of poise if they are to avoid falling into last year's trap. Here are seven reasons that Philadelphia should want to miss Atlanta come playoff time...
Atlanta's Big-Game Pitchers
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The four aces in Philadelphia have been as good as advertised throughout the entire 2011 campaign. But while the Phillies' dominant rotation has been making headlines for much of the summer, the starting staff in Atlanta has quietly put on a show. Despite the recent injuries to Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, the Braves have carried a top-tier team ERA for much of the season and held their own against the Phillies.
When the playoffs begin, Atlanta will send their own big names to the hill in hopes to limit the opposing offense. If healthy, this rotation would feature Jurrjens, Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, a scary lineup of pitching probables as a series moves along. Much like the Giants a year ago, the Braves have the arsenal to keep the Phillies at bay until their offense can strike against Philadelphia's veteran hurlers.
Jurrjens has been a thorn in the side of the Phillies since he came into the league back in 2007. Despite a 3-3 career record in nine starts against Philadelphia, the young righty has posted a 2.56 ERA. The Braves ace has enjoyed a recent string of success against the NL East leaders, winning both of his starts including a victory over Cole Hamels at Citizens Bank Park. Due to a nagging knee injury, the 25-year-old isn't expected to be ready until the NLCS at the earliest, just in time to take the mound against the Phillies.
Picking up the slack as he and fellow rising star Tommy Hanson recover in time for a deep postseason run will be experienced starters Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson, a couple that round out a very balanced rotation. While Lowe has struggled in his four starts against Philadelphia in 2011, going 1-3 with a pedestrian 4.13 earned run average, he has given the Phillies problems in the past. If it weren't for an error by Rafael Furcal in Game 1 of the 2008 NLCS, Lowe could have pitched the Dodgers to victory.
Hudson has also tormented the Philadelphia lineup over the past five years. Unless Ryan Howard is stepping up to the plate against the 12-year veteran, the Braves could count on Hudson to control the opposing offense. Both he and Lowe rely on the ground ball to keep the baseball in the yard, a tool that could come in handy when starting at the hitter-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
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When the Philles went out and got their man in Hunter Pence just days before the trade deadline, the Braves answered with a talented outfield acquisition of their own. What could await Philadelphia at the top of Atlanta's order is the familiar face of a prospect the Phils once jettisoned to Houston in exchange for Brad Lidge.
Michael Bourn has been the spark the Braves were looking for when they picked him out of Houston's fire sale this summer. Filling the position Atlanta originally thought Nate McLouth would be able to hold, Bourn gives the Phillies a reason to worry about giving up manufactured runs in a playoff series. His combination of speed and contact hitting could be vital to creating opportunities when they are hard to come by against Philadelphia's trio of Cy Young contenders.
Bourn's .296 average and 56 stolen bases on the season conjure up memories of leadoff speedsters that have historically been thorns in the sides of the Phillies. Fans remember the pesky production of Juan Pierre for the Marlins and Jose Reyes in New York when healthy. Unleashing that sort of havoc on the basepaths is enough to alter the course of a playoff series.
Though Philadelphia's pitching has done well to keep Bourn in the dugout this season by limiting him to a .196 clip at the plate, his impact is felt on the defensive side, as well. The 28-year-old is capable of patrolling all stretches of the outfield and could deliver a memorable performance with his speed similar to Shane Victorino in the 2008 NLCS.
Controlling Bourn in all phases of the game will be a tall task for the Phillies regardless of who is on the mound. Atlanta's prized catch from the trade deadline is undoubtedly intent on making Philadelphia pay for giving up on him early in his career. Should the Phils lose sight of his importance to the Braves' success, they could end up watching him in the World Series.
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Last season, the Giants offense limped into Philadelphia in a scoring drought, advancing only due to strong pitching and a few untimely errors by Atlanta's Brooks Conrad. In need of an offensive boost, their lineup received a shot in the arm from rookie catcher Buster Posey. Shrugging off a slow start to the series at the plate, Posey single-handedly pushed the Phillies to the brink of elimination in Game 4 with a 4-for-5 night at the dish and a run-saving defensive play late in the game.
The idea that an inexperienced player can work his way into postseason lore is very appealing to the Atlanta Braves, a team that carries several rising stars on the roster into October. These young starters can make a difference by either embracing a pressure-filled moment or simply allow their lack of MLB service to shield them from realizing how big each at-bat truly is.
The Phillies are hoping to avoid allowing a repeat performance from an emerging talent, but the Braves will send starting first baseman Freddie Freeman onto the field when the playoffs begin. Freeman has been a revelation for the Braves throughout the 2011 season, filling a void at first that the team has felt since the departure of Mark Teixiera.
The rookie has batted .286 with 20 home runs and 74 RBI, providing stability out of the fifth spot in the lineup and protection for the clean-up hitter. His consistency has helped pace the Braves attack for much of the season, leaving no doubt that he can continue producing well into October. He is joined by outfielders Jose Constanza and Jason Heyward as developing bats that could steal a game against Philadelphia, much like Posey did.
Back End of the 'Pen
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In a potential Braves-Phillies NLCS matchup, strong starting pitching will once again take center stage in front of a national audience. Much like last year's postseason semifinal series, runs may be hard to come by when any member of the playoff rotation is on the bump. For that reason, the performance of the bullpen on either side will take on a crucial role.
Should these two relief contingents square off in October, advantage Atlanta.
Enter the Braves' trio of talented relievers, each as dominant as the next. If Philadelphia is slumping offensively when this series rolls around, facing Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel could end with a row of late-inning zeros. Reviewing the Phillies' problems against San Francisco in the latter portion of last year's contests, Atlanta's bullpen might be the key to bouncing the NL East champions.
So how good has the Braves' late-game relief been over the course of 2011? The three relievers mentioned above have a combined ERA of 1.60 over the course of 230 innings this season, an absolutely staggering figure for a group with under four years of MLB service between them. Couple that with just six home runs allowed total, a number that indicates that they have restricted the quick-strike ability of opposing teams, and you have Atlanta's biggest strength.
The most dangerous part about the back end of the Braves 'pen relating to the Phillies is that both Venters and O'Flaherty, with ERAs of 1.69 and 1.02 respectively, are lefties. Against a Philadelphia lineup that features left-handed hitters Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and a streaking Raul Ibanez, the Braves bullpen could mitigate the impact of Philly's big bats. Looking at how the Phillies stars were limited by Damaso Marte and Jeremy Affeldt in each of the past two Octobers, Philadelphia should be looking to avoid a pair of southpaw relievers performing at a high level.
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Though the "Phearsome Phoursome" has seemed unstoppable at times during the 2011 regular season, there have been several hiccups along the way. Unfortunately for fans hoping that the Phillies will ride their star-studded staff to an easy victory over the Braves, the combination of Halladay, Hamels, Lee and Oswalt has been little more than serviceable when matching up against Atlanta’s starters this season.
By no means has Philadelphia’s starting pitching left the Phillies out of contention in starts against the Braves this season, but they have yet to exhibit the same dominance over their rivals that the league has become accustomed to seeing. Evidenced by a 4-4 record in 12 starts made by the Phils’ postseason rotation versus Atlanta, a playoff meeting between the NL East contenders may not turn out to be the exhibition of aces many are expecting.
Cliff Lee has been at the center of many of Philly’s struggles against Atlanta in both of his stints in the City of Brotherly Love. Since 2009, Lee has gone 1-3 in six starts against the Braves, including two outings where he has failed to reach the fifth inning. After taking two losses when facing Atlanta this season, Lee will be counted on to avoid a letdown if he gets another shot in October.
Mediocrity at Turner Field
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In 2008, the Phillies won the World Series behind strong performances on the road throughout the year. Their success away from Citizens Bank Park was particularly impressive when the team visited Atlanta during that season, recording a perfect 9-0 mark. However, since that improbable nine-game run, Philadelphia has won at a significantly slower rate, raising concerns about their ability to emerge from Turner Field with a key victory in the postseason.
In the years following their winning streak against the Braves on the road, the Phillies have finished below .500 in consecutive years. Leaving Atlanta with a 4-5 record in both 2009 and 2010 does not bode well for Philadelphia in series that will have the Braves’ playoff crowd emotionally charged.
Playoff wins are hard to come by on the road, but success away from home can lead to a title much like it did in 2008. Staring down the possibility of playing at least two games in a ballpark where they are hovering right around .500 baseball is an unsettling prospect for Phillies side that is used to road dominance.
The Braves will need to defend their home turf in order to unseat Philadelphia as the team to beat in the National League. After holding to a ballclub with a 46 road wins to just three thus far at Turner Field, Atlanta could cause a problem after visiting Citizens Bank Park.
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Against a starting staff that has the capability to shut hitters down at any point in a game, stringing together hits is no easy task, particularly in the postseason. Opportunities to score are scarce and teams must have the ability to put runs on the board quickly. For the Braves, this means using the long ball to beat solid pitching before they even know what hit them.
Meeting the Phillies aces in a best-of-seven means finding a way to solve some of the game’s best. Atlanta has power throughout their lineup that most do not, ranking in as a top-tier home run hitting team. Using quick displays of power when at-bat in Philadelphia’s small ballpark, the Braves could do their best Cody Ross imitation to escape Citizens Bank Park with an early victory in the series.
The middle of the Braves order is filled with power-hitters that have plagued the Phillies over the past few seasons. Led by slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, the Braves rank third in the National League with 169 home runs. Uggla, catcher Brian McCann and Atlanta mainstay Chipper Jones all have experience against Philadelphia pitching after extensive stays in the NL East.
The Atlanta Braves had eight players hit double-digit home runs in 2011, a total that will force opposing pitching to take extra care when facing their lineup. Even bench standouts Eric Hinske and Jason Heyward contributed to the team’s power figures despite not playing regularly for much of the season.
The Giants sent the Phillies packing, using opportunistic power hitting with much less home run potential. Atlanta has enough ability to make any of the Phillies aces pay for a single mistake, even when they seem to be in cruise control.