With Tough Stretch Looming, Phillies Salvage Win Vs. Lowly Braves

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Simply put, a sweep at the hands of the last-place Atlanta Braves would not have been the way for the Phillies to head into a 10-day stretch of put-up-or shut-up baseball.

A 5-0 win with an offensive breakout, though, was just what Pete Mackanin ordered (see Instant Replay).

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The Phillies' manager said after Saturday’s 2-0 loss that he thought his club looked a little down.

Nothing like a 13-hit performance on Sunday to help lift the spirits.

Cameron Rupp tallied a career-high three hits, including a second-inning solo homer, Odubel Herrera broke an 0 for 11 skid with a pair of hits and the Phillies got seven dominant innings from starting pitcher Jerad Eickhoff.

“Well, it is a good boost for us,” Mackanin said. “We needed to win that game today.”

The math-defying Phillies (25-19) headed to the airport after Sunday’s win with some smiles instead of the gloom a sweep would’ve produced.

And they’ll need all the emotional lift they can get.

Ahead are nine games in 10 days. The stretch starts Monday with three in Detroit with the Tigers. Then it's on to Chicago for three against the Major League-leading Cubs. It ends with a three-game set back home with the NL East-leading Washington Nationals starting on Memorial Day.

“We’re going to face some tough teams,” Mackanin said. “Detroit we haven’t seen. Nor the Cubs. We know they’re both pretty good, offensive-minded teams.”

Offensive-minded is something the Phillies aren’t. They’ve been winning with their pitching. Sunday they recorded their seventh shutout of the season, a number that leads all of baseball and equals their total for the entire 2015 season.

But the offense has been stagnant. Saturday’s two-hit performance was a season-low. Prior to Sunday, they were held to four runs or fewer in eight consecutive games. They were 4-4 over that stretch, all against teams hovering around or below .500. The fine line their pitching staff has been forced to walk finally showed some give.

Sunday, though, they battered Braves starter Casey Kelly early and took advantage of a few of his mistakes later.

“It’s good for everybody,” third baseman Maikel Franco said. “We showed a lot of energy. Everybody did something for the team.”

Even Franco himself.

The Phillies' slugger has been struggling in the month of May along with his partner in the middle of the order, Ryan Howard. Franco led off the fifth inning with a blooper to right field that fell in for a base hit. The next inning, he sent another blooper into center that fell in front of Mallex Smith and allowed two Phillies to cross the plate.

“We’re relying on him heavily,” Mackanin said. “I think he’s going to get back on track. When you get a few flare hits like that and drive in a run or two, it tends to relax you a bit and give you confidence.”

Franco, the Phillies hope, will get some help in the middle of the order against Detroit. The designated hitter rule in American League parks will allow the Phillies to deploy a DH. Mackanin said Sunday that Tommy Joseph will man first base while Ryan Howard - mired in a terrible slump of his own - will DH.

After dropping 11 of 12 games, Detroit has been playing much better baseball of late. Sunday, in beating Tampa, 9-4, the Tigers inched one-game closer to .500. The Phillies will send Vince Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola - arguably their three best pitchers - to the mound for the three games in Motown.

The Cubs, of course, own the league’s best record and are the odds-on favorite to win the World Series. But they entered Sunday night’s game in San Francisco losers in four of six. Perhaps the Phillies will play at Wrigley next weekend at just the perfect time.

At the end of this nine-game stretch, a four-game series against Milwaukee is all that separates the Phillies from three more games against Chicago and three more against Washington.

There’s an awful lot to be learned about the 2016 Phillies over the next month. The first 44 games have been a nice orientation for what’s to come.

And Sunday, had the game not gone the way it had, the feeling would’ve been a lot worse on that airplane to the next portion of the season.

“It’s nice to end the homestand with a win and have some confidence headed into the road trip,” Mackanin said.

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