Series will give Phils perspective

The Braves currently trail the Phillies by 2.5 games in the National League East. (John Bazemore/AP)
The Braves currently trail the Phillies by 2.5 games in the National League East. (John Bazemore/AP)
Posted: July 08, 2011

Two weeks ago in this space, the Phillies - as if they hadn't been paying attention - were informed that a great opportunity lay before them heading into the all-star break.

If they could bear down and win 12 of the 18 games remaining until the break, that would launch them into the rest of the schedule with a 57-34 record and require them to do nothing more than play .500 ball the rest of the way to reach a baseline of 93 wins.

That kind of push would also, no doubt, put some distance between the Phils and their rivals and essentially secure the division title without drama.

Well, the Phillies held up their end. Despite operating with a balky offense and without 40 percent of their opening-day rotation, they have methodically won two of three games in five straight series during that span. They lost some they should have won and won some they should have lost, which is the way baseball goes. But in the end, heading into the final series before the break, with another two wins they will finish with that exact 57-34 record and stay on a pace to win 101 games.

It is remarkable consistency for a team that usually operates without much room for error and is on its fourth closer of the season. Toss in the 12 trips players have made to the disabled list and the various other ailments, like the recent thumb sprain that sidelined Shane Victorino, and it seems that with improved luck, the Phillies could play even better the rest of the season.

The only shadow that falls across the plan is the familiar one that arrives in Citizens Bank Park on Friday for the last series before the break. While the Phils have certainly done their part in these last weeks, the Atlanta Braves apparently didn't read the section of the script that dealt with falling out of the race. In fact, they have drawn closer to first place, having won 14 of their last 17, including Thursday's 6-3 win over Colorado.

With a sweep of the Phillies this weekend, Atlanta would actually take the division lead by a half-game. That's unlikely - the Phils roll out Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels - but it is a real reminder that there's plenty of season left, and the Braves seem intent on playing the whole thing.

Even if the Phils aren't looking in the rear-view mirror at the race that has developed behind them, they are looking in the mirror when facing the Braves. It is a team built on very good starting pitching and just enough offense to get the job done. A team that doesn't make many errors and rarely beats itself. (The Phillies have given up only 16 unearned runs this season and hold an unearned run average of 0.018, meaning they allow an unearned run slightly more than every five games. For a team that plays on a grass field, that's ridiculously good.)

The Phils won't have to face either Jair Jurrjens or Tim Hudson, so it isn't a full-on showdown this weekend, but they will see Atlanta's hottest pitcher, Tommy Hanson, who has won five straight games and is now 10-4 with a 2.52 ERA.

Regardless of what happens in the three games, the series against the Braves won't decide much. For one thing, a sweep either way would be very unusual. Only two teams in the major leagues have not been swept in a three-games-or-more series this season - the Phils and the Braves.

What the series might do, however, is give the front office some perspective heading into the three-day break and just a few weeks before the non-waiver trading deadline.

It is assumed that the Phillies have come to the conclusion that they need to add a righthanded bat to the roster, hopefully someone who can help solidify the corner outfield positions. Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr., and Domonic Brown are all hitting below .240, and the search to protect Ryan Howard in the lineup has continued.

There is also the possibility that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. isn't sold on the bullpen as it is now. If Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson come back healthy, then finding someone who can close games isn't vital, but the Phils could still use another lefthander in the bullpen to fill the gap left by J.C. Romero. They have gotten remarkable work from Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo, but does Amaro believe the youngest pitchers on the staff - along with Vance Worley - will hold up down the stretch? Prior to this season, those three pitchers had appeared in a total of 36 major-league games. They have a combined 74 appearances already this year.

It's a lot to consider, particularly if the price for improving the offense would be some of the starting pitching depth that has served them well - either Worley or Kyle Kendrick.

Had the Braves done them the favor of falling out of the race, those considerations might be a little easier. As it is, though, the good play of the last couple of weeks has only kept the Phillies in first place, not assured them of staying there.

They get a good look at the other guys again this weekend, and when it is over, the Phils front office will have a better idea what it is looking at as well.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at bford@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "Post Patterns,"

at www.philly.com/postpatterns

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