On Sunday afternoon, round about 4:30ish, the Phillies will bid adieu to the first half of the 2011 season. Whether they do it as the leaders in the National League East is another story altogether, as they are welcoming the Atlanta Braves – who are at a 2.5 game deficit – to town for a three game set. It has all the makings of one of those “October Previews” that we hear so much about.
Except for a couple days in May, the Phillies have been the soup-to-nuts division leaders, steamrolling past the competition. Despite all the injuries, offensive blackouts and the like, they’ve held the best record in baseball longer than any other team.
However, the red hot Braves have won 14 of their last 17 games and own the second best record in the game.
Like the Phils, the Braves are backed by some extraordinary pitching, with a starting staff that can rival just about any other team in baseball (even the Phillies), and a bevy of young arms in the ‘pen – namely those belonging to Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel – that have helped lead to their N.L. best 3.03 team ERA.
Offensively, they are just about league average, and have proven to be a tick worse than the Phillies in terms of overall effectiveness with the bats. However, they’ve averaged over five runs per game this month, which, given their pitching, is more than enough.
They have enough power and ash to do a ton of damage, most of which has come off the bats of catcher Brian McCann, who leads the Braves in homers (14) and RBIs (48), as well as youngster Freddie Freeman, who has been on fire as of late, with a crushing .364/.488/.848 line over his last ten games.
Curiously enough, two of the bats that were projected to do a ton of damage this season are perhaps two of the quietest. Jason Heyward, who is sure to terrorize the National League for years to come, is OPSing at a .738 clip in 66 games, while off-season acquisition Dan Uggla is hitting .183 – you read that right – despite hitting 14 homers.
Chipper Jones, the longest tenured Brave and object of many a jeer over the last decade or so, is dealing with a balky knee and has struggled at times this season, but shouldn’t be counted out, given his proclivity for crushing the Phillies to the tune of .332/.446/.599 over his career.
Meanwhile, the Phillies are dealing with a shorthanded roster thanks to a handful of bumps and bruises. Not only will closer Ryan Madson be absent for the remainder of the half, but third baseman Placido Polanco is dealing with a minor back injury that has subsequently buried his production, and Shane Victorino's on the DL thanks to a thumb injury from his fall during the series finale in Toronto last Sunday.
Given how the offense can already be a roller coaster ride, the last thing the Phillies needed is for one of their key players to take an impromptu trip to the bench.
As a result, they'll need to rely on more than just the standards -- Chase Utley and Ryan Howard -- to break out the bats. Guys like Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are going to be key to the Phillies' success, while Domonic Brown, who is coming into his own with the bat, can get a nice taste of the spotlight with a big series.
Quite frankly, this is about as good as it gets for fans of the game, as the pitching matchups in this series are completely insane and are sure to provide a playoff-like atmosphere. Roy Halladay (11-3, 2.44) starts things off on Friday night, where he will be opposed by Brandon Beachy (3-1, 3.23). Cliff Lee (9-6, 2.92) vs. Tommy Hanson (10-4, 2.52) follows suit on Sunday, while Cole Hamels (10-4, 2.40) takes on Derek Lowe (5-6, 4.21) to finish things off on Sunday.
While it's only July, this is about as important as a series can get in the middle of the season. A sweep for either team would be huge, and it would mean a comfortable lead or a half-game deficit for the Phillies to start the second half.