Braves look to join Phillies in fast lane

Phillies' Carlos Ruiz gets plunked in the third inning against the Marlins.
Phillies' Carlos Ruiz gets plunked in the third inning against the Marlins. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 07, 2011

MIAMI - So here are the Phillies, cruising down Interstate 2011. It's a bright and sunny day. Behind the wheel, Charlie Manuel has his elbow out the window. A bouncy country song is on the radio. A glance at the on-board GPS indicates that the World Series, while still a ways off, is straight ahead. He smiles. Life is good.

Then he looks in the rearview mirror and notices a sleek sports car driven by Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is right on his tailpipe.

The Phillies have the best record in baseball. But the Braves are second-best in the National League. And it just so happens that they'll help pull the curtain down on the first half of the season with a three-game series beginning tomorrow night at Citizens Bank Park.

Atlanta trails by just three games in the NL East. The Phillies have been good enough long enough now that we all should have learned not to overhype a single series in July. A sweep one way or the other or anything in between doesn't decide anything.

Heck, we just went through this drill a couple of weeks ago, using advanced mathematics, flawless logic and expert testimony to prove beyond a doubt that the Red Sox series was not, in fact, a World Series preview.

And yet, there's something about this weekend that transcends the basics of a midseason matchup between a pair of baseball's better teams, even if words like "crucial" and "critical" are best left in storage for at least a couple of more months.

Part of it is that these teams are so doggone similar. The Phillies rank first in team earned run average and shutouts. The Braves are second in both categories. The Phillies' rotation has a 2.99 ERA. The Braves are at 3.17. The Phillies' bullpen is anchored by a pair of youngsters, Antonio Bastardo (0.87 ERA) and Michael Stutes (2.54). The Braves have closer Craig Kimbrel (26 saves, 69 strikeouts in 44 innings) plus lefthanders Jonny Venters (1.53) and Eric O'Flaherty (1.13).

"I was curious to see exactly how good their bullpen was going to be. Because the kids are young and they have great stuff. I'm still kind of hoping that because they're young that the length of the season might catch up with them," Manuel said with a laugh before last night's butt-ugly 7-6, 10-inning loss to the Marlins at Sun Life Stadium. "It's up to them to prove that it won't."

The same, of course, could be said of Bastardo and Stutes.

Both teams have been unable to generate offense consistently. The Phillies started last night seventh in the league in runs scored; Atlanta was ninth. The biggest divide is that the Braves have more homers but less speed. Both have been on a roll, the Braves winning eight of their last 10 and the Phillies taking seven of their last 10.

The biggest reason to overlay some added significance onto the proceedings, though, is that the Braves look very much like the type of team that has the potential to give the Phillies problems in the postseason. They have excellent starting pitching. They have a terrific bullpen. They are offensively challenged. They are, now that you mention it, constructed much along the same lines of the San Francisco Giants team that bounced the Phils out of the playoffs last season.

If nothing else, that makes this an interesting opportunity to simulate the challenges that the postseason will present. And, not so incidentally, to take the test just 3 weeks before the nonwaiver trading deadline.

It's a given, for example, that the Phillies absolutely must somehow locate a righthanded bat if they are to have any hope of winning the third world championship in franchise history. But what if John Mayberry Jr., who had the first two-homer game of his career last night against the Marlins, does some damage against Atlanta's pitching? Would that shuffle the priorities?

They can pretend that it's the division series against Milwaukee and they're going to face Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum in the first two games of the division series.

Or that it's an October rematch against the Giants, who will send out Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Or that they end up facing St. Louis, which could mean Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.

The only way this could be a better dry run would be if the pitching matchups fell into place the way they presumably would if both teams had the opportunity to set their matchups for the elimination round.

The Phillies have it lined up just the way they'd want: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels. Atlanta's best starter, Jair Jurrjens, beat the Rockies last night. He now has 12 wins and a 1.87 ERA. No. 2 starter Tim Hudson pitches this afternoon. So the Phillies will see Brandon Beachy, who has been excellent lately, plus 10-game winner Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe.

Even that should give them a pretty good clue about how they stack up against the sort of team they could meet in the playoffs. Not to mention the very club they could run across in the NL Championship Series, the last obstacle between the Phillies and a third trip to the World Series in the last 4 years.

And that's pretty interesting. Even in July.

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