Bob Ford: Phils' biggest obstacle is themselves

Posted: July 19, 2010

The Phillies might not win the National League for the third straight time this season. They might not even make the postseason for the fourth straight time, particularly if Sunday's loss to the Cubs is any indication.

The 2010 season has been frustrating and puzzling, as their powerful offense has suffered through unexplained slumps and their pitching has been occasionally good but never great.

But, please. Enough with the notion that what will keep the Phils from seeking another run at the World Series is the presence of a great Atlanta Braves team.

The Braves are a nice team, really nice in some ways, but the notion that leapfrogging the Braves would require super-human effort is ridiculous. The Phillies, if they play as they can, have nothing to worry about, either from Atlanta or from their alleged co-rivals, the Mets.

For the moment, let's take a look specifically at the Braves and figure out why they are considered such a roadblock for the Phillies.

One reason is history. The Braves were the wall the Phillies couldn't climb for more than a decade, and that stretch of prominence is not that far removed. The manager, Bobby Cox, is the same, and he is enjoying a valedictory tour following his decision to retire after this season.

Otherwise, the Braves are nothing like the team that so recently dominated the division. Those Atlanta teams were built on great starting staffs, just enough offense and some decent power production in the launching pads of Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field.

What do the Braves have now? Well, they have a 51/2-game lead over the Phillies and they have a great player in second baseman Martin Prado and an ace starter in Tim Hudson. Beyond that, they have as many peaks and valleys as any other team.

This season, the Braves began with a 13-18 record and were six games behind the Phillies on May 9. Within the space of 15 days - which says more about the NL East than it does about the Braves - Atlanta went from fifth place to first place as part of a monthlong spurt during which the Braves were 20-5.

Now, winning 20 out of 25 games is nothing to discount, but it is the kind of run the Phillies have made themselves. Maybe not this season. But maybe just not yet.

Bookending their bad start and their hot four weeks, the Braves have since lolled about playing just over .500 baseball. Nothing to be proud of, nothing to be ashamed of, but considering the plight of the Phillies, something upon which to build a division lead.

So, they have built a division lead. Well, great for them. There are still more than 70 games to play.

On Saturday, a few hours after the Phillies improvised an improbable comeback against the Cubs, the Braves sent Hudson out against the Brewers and he was whacked around. Almost a mirror of Phils' ace Roy Halladay, Hudson, who has a gaudy 2.60 earned run average, is now just 9-5 on the season, and he's lost four of his last seven starts. His overall record and ERA are good but not the stuff that carries a team to a division win.

Beyond Hudson, Atlanta's staff includes talented young Jair Jurrjens who is just back from the disabled list and carrying around a 4.75 ERA. Kris Medlen had a good first half of the season, but he has just 15 career starts and how he will hold up is unknown. There is Derek Lowe, who won Sunday to go 10-8, but with another ERA over four runs per game. There is Tommy Hanson, also just above .500 and another ERA over four runs. Perhaps on a given day, with one given game to win, Tim Hudson would be a problem, but there isn't much separating the starting staff from that of the Phillies.

One great difference between the teams has been the bullpen.

Atlanta's has been more consistent in closing out games, leading up to the 21 saves in 24 opportunities for Billy Wagner. The Phils have just 18 saves as a team, partly because there have been 10 complete games. That's a chicken-egg equation as manager Charlie Manuel has allowed Halladay and Jamie Moyer to finish games because he is not confident in the bullpen. The hope is those extra innings don't take a late-season toll on the starters.

The real question, though is whether, with one game to save, you would feel any more comfortable with Wagner than you do with Brad Lidge. By the end of the season, the difference could be minuscule.

On offense, the Braves are 12th in the National League in slugging percentage. Among their players with enough at-bats to be eligible for league leadership, only Prado is hitting better than .270. Troy Glaus and Brian McCann, the all-star MVP, have decent power numbers, but they are also easy outs. Chipper Jones, the holdover from the previous era, is battling a hamstring injury and has been inconsistent at the plate.

The Braves did make a Braves-like move recently, sending away talented, but undisciplined shortstop Yunel Escobar in favor of Alex Gonzalez, one of those quiet professionals more to the liking of their grumpy, old-school manager.

It was a sensible short-term deal, but the Phillies are capable of making some moves of their own before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. They merely have to decide if it is worth the effort this season.

If the Phils don't go for it this year, hopefully it won't be because they think Braves are a magical, uncatchable team. The Braves are fine, but they aren't as good as the real Phillies, should the real Phillies choose to show themselves this season.

The only NL East team truly capable of keeping the Phils out of the postseason isn't found in an opposing dugout but in the mirrors of their own clubhouse.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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