The division leaders come to Atlanta...but will they leave on top of the division?
The Braves are only a half game out of first place. Whoever wins this series will claim the spot at the top of the NL East as June begins. The Braves have been lighting the world on fire with just one game left in May, putting up a record of 19-8. A win tomorrow would give the team a 20 win month, a far cry from the 9 posted in April, which was marred by the embarrassing 9 game losing streak. If the Braves play .500 ball during that streak, they're 4 and a half up in the standings. Instead, here we are. While the Braves have thrived in May, the Phillies...well, they haven't exactly struggled...they've just played worse than the Braves, with a 16-11 record.
The Braves are 2-4 this season, losing a pair of series 2-1, one at home in April, and one in Philly in May. Luckily, in this series, the Braves will miss the 2 pitchers who gave them 3 out of those 4 losses: Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay. The Braves will instead face Joe Blanton on Monday, Cole Hamels on Tuesday, and Kyle Kendrick Wednesday The Braves counter with Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, and Derek Lowe respectively. If you look strictly at 2010 performances, the Braves have the advantage in each matchup. Blanton and Kendrick both have ERAs over 5.00, while Hamels's is a run and a half higher than Hudson's. Not that win/loss records mean anything, but each of the Braves starters has a better record than the Phillies starter they face. Also worth noting is that Braves starters don't have a win against the Phillies this season. The first win was in extra innings on a Nate McLouth walkoff homer, and the second win came in Kris Medlen's first start where he couldn't get out of the 5th inning.
When it comes to the bullpen, the advantage leans towards the Braves. Both teams have their liabilities (Jesse Chavez for the Braves, Nelson Figueroa for the Phillies), but the Braves top 3 of Peter Moylan, Takashi Saito, and Billy Wagner tops the current Philly top 3 of Jose Contreras, Chad Durbin, and JC Romero. Durbin has been great, but Romero has been rather spotty for Philly. The Braves trio has been rather awesome this season, though Saito is likely fatigued as hell from his overuse over the past 2 weeks. Losing Contreras from his role as a middle reliever into a closer hurts the Phillies, The higher leverage innings which were going to Contreras are now going to Danys Baez and his even K:BB ratio, which is never something you want to see out of a late game reliever.
Now, lets take a look at offense...something that coming into the season, you wouldn't expect the Braves to have the advantage in. Each team features studs in right field and at second base: Jason Heyward and Martin Prado for the Braves, and Jayson Werth and Chase Utley for the Phillies. Each team has an advantage at one position, with Heyward being better than Werth, though Werth is having a phenomenal season himself, and Utley being miles ahead of Prado based solely on his history. But as Utley goes, so goes the Phillies. Over the past week, he's gone 2 for 23 and the team has scored only 4 runs in 6 games. And by the same token, the Braves will go as Heyward goes. He's gone 9 for 25, and the Braves have scored 37 runs while winning 5 of 6 games. With Jimmy Rollins on the DL for Philly, Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro are getting a lot of at bats...a huge downgrade from Rollins, and a deficiency in comparison to Yunel Escobar, who is better despite his struggling. Placido Polanco should be able to return this week for Philly, and him and Chipper Jones is a wash at this point...which actually really pains me to say it, but its true. Ryan Howard and Troy Glaus has also become a wash this year, though that will all change before the season is over. That leaves 3 positions...the Phillies have a massive edge in center field with Shane Victorino, and Eric Hinske: left fielder runs all over Raul Ibanez. 2 of the 3 Phillies starters are righties, so expect a healthy dose of the man I call HINSKZILLA this week. And finally, behind the plate...Carlos Ruiz has calmed down from a hot start, while Brian McCann has played sparingly lately, but is still the better player.
On to the bench. This one is no contest. The Phillies bench is Juan Castro, Ben Francisco, Ross Gload, Greg Dobbs, and Brian Schneider. Only Gload has an OPS above .600. Then we look at the Braves bench, where 3 men have OPSes above .700, and 1 of the other 2 is 12 for his last 29 with an 8 game hitting streak. I don't even need to insinuate that the advantage lies with the home team in the case.
Lets take a final look at the series. The offenses are evenly matched, with the Braves performing a whole lot better right now. The Braves bench is worlds better than Philadelphia's. The battle of the bullpens is close, but again, the Braves take it. And finally, when it comes to the starters in the series, the Braves have a definitive edge.
This is a series where a sweep would be just sweet. It is imperative however, that the Braves at least take 2 out of 3 from the Phillies. With how bad the division leaders are playing right now, you need to be able to take advantage of the weakened team. If the Braves were able to get into first place here at the beginning of June, it would be a huge boost for a team that has 13 of its next 17 games against teams at least 5 games over .500 (the Phillies, Dodgers, Twins, and Rays). The Phillies schedule isn't any better, with 16 of 19 coming against teams 5 games above .500 (Braves, Padres, Red Sox, Yankees, and Twins). It really is crunch time for each team, and considering that we're not seeing Philly again until the beginning of July, this is an opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of right here, right now.