Phils Take Hot Bats Down South

Nearly a week into the 2011 season, and things are going swimmingly for the Phillies. After dropping double digits on the New York Mets for the second straight day and sweeping the Astros to open the season, it appears that the team with the best rotation in the game ended up hitting their way to a fast start rather than pitching their way to it.

It's a far cry from the Phillies of old, who were more known for their slow starts and dramatic season-ending finishes than the hammer-dropping acceleration of late.

And while a 5-1 record is a great way to star the season, Phillies' fans shouldn't get comfortable. Not yet, anyway. Why? Mostly, it's because the Astros and Mets are, well, the Astros and Mets. They didn't offer that much of a challenge in the season's first six games, save for Opening Day against the 'Stros that ended in a thrilling rally in the ninth and the first game against the Mets, where Cole Hamels got tuned up.

Aside from that, it's been nothing but low hanging fruit for the Phightins. Not that it's a bad thing. After all, those are the games you need to win. It's not as if they don't count in the standings, but one has to wonder if the offensive outburst from the Phillies is the real deal, or if it was just the bi-product of inferior pitching.

Regardless of how the Phils came by those wins, they'll need to take that momentum into Atlanta on Friday, where they face off against the Braves in a three-game set that is sure to be the start of a very competitive rivalry with the 2010 National League Wild Card winners.

But unlike their previous two opponents, the Phillies need to be prepared for the Braves, who will undoubtedly offer a much greater challenge to the reigning NL East champions. The Braves are much more rounded than the Phils previous foes, with a solid starting rotation, a great bullpen, and an offense that poses a threat to opposing arms.

Much like the final two series with Atlanta last season, the Phillies are setting them up to run through a buzzsaw, this time of Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, which is as deadly a combo of pitchers that most teams are likely to see this season. You could say that they got off easy by not having to face Roy Halladay, but you'd be kidding yourself.

The Braves will be countering with a bevy of arms of their own, including Friday night's starter Tim Hudson, who is coming off of a fantastic 2010 season, where he put up a 2.83 ERA in 228 innings. Behind him is the youngster Brandon Beachy and the veteran Derek Lowe, all the hurlers should certainly prove to be formidable opponents on the mound.

While they will throw their fair share of arms at the Phillies, the Braves offense can very well challenge the aces that Charlie Manuel will be sending their way. Not only did Atlanta add a legitimate power threat in Dan Uggla in the off-season, but they also boast a healthy Chipper Jones and super-phenom Jason Heyward, who is following up on his tremendous rookie season.

It's not an understatement to say that it will be no easy task for Cliff, Roy and Cole.

And although the season isn't even a full week old, the next three games will be tantamount to a series in late September when playoff spots are on the line. There is a long way to go before the dust settles, but a strong showing against the Braves could go a long way in determining how easy or difficult the 2011 season will really prove to be for these Phillies. 

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