Braves bring potent pitching into showdown with Phillies

Closer Craig Kimbrel (27 saves) celebrates with David Ross after the Braves finished off a four-game sweep of Colorado.
Closer Craig Kimbrel (27 saves) celebrates with David Ross after the Braves finished off a four-game sweep of Colorado. (SCOTT CUNNINGHAM / Getty Images)
Posted: July 08, 2011

The team with the best pitching in baseball is going to face the team with the second-best pitching in baseball this weekend at Citizens Bank Park.

It's a matter of opinion as to which team is which.

That's how close the pitching staffs of the Phillies and Atlanta Braves are as the teams begin a three-game National League East showdown series on Friday night.

With the Braves completing a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies on Thursday, the Phillies' lead in the division has shrunk to 2 1/2 games. That means with a sweep, the Braves can take over first place at the all-star break.

From a statistical standpoint, the Atlanta pitching staff comes into Philadelphia with a 3.02 team ERA. The Phillies team ERA is 3.05.

The Atlanta starters are 39-24 with a 3.23 ERA. The Phillies starters are 41-24 with a 2.99 ERA.

The Atlanta relievers are 14-12 with 31 saves and a 2.64 ERA. The Phillies relievers are 14-9 with 25 saves and a 3.23 ERA.

"Their pitching is the best I've seen this year," a National League scout said when asked about the Braves.

And, yes, the scout has seen the Phillies plenty.

"It's better than the Phillies pitching when you include the bullpen," the scout said. "That bullpen is spectacular. I think Jonny Venters might be the best reliever in baseball right now."

Venters, 26, has a 1.52 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. Lefthanded hitters are batting .125 against him.

Eric O'Flaherty, also 26, has been equally effective against lefties, which means those two guys will be showing up in the late innings when Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are scheduled to bat.

Closer Craig Kimbrel, 23, leads the majors with 27 saves and has struck out 70 batters in 45 innings.

"I was curious to see how their bullpen was going to be," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Their kids are young and have great stuff. I'm still hoping because they're young that the length of the season might catch up with them."

The same scout who believes the Braves have a better overall pitching staff also thinks Atlanta is capable of ending the Phillies' run of four straight National League East titles.

"Will they catch the Phillies? I don't know," the scout said. "Are they good enough? Absolutely."

At the end of April, the Braves were 13-15 and six games behind the Phillies. Since then, the Phillies have gone 37-25 and lost 3 1/2 games in the standings because the white-hot Braves have gone 40-21.

It's too soon to say this series is critical, but it may be even more intriguing than the interleague series the Phillies played last week against the Boston Red Sox.

With the Phillies' Ryan Madson, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge on the disabled list, the Braves have a bullpen advantage at this stage of the season, even though Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes have more than held their own in their first crack at late-inning relief roles.

The Phillies' advantage in this series and overall is in the starting rotation.

"I wouldn't say their starters are as dynamic as the Phillies', but they're very good," the scout said.

At least in two of the three games this weekend, the pitching matchups will favor the Phillies, who will send their all-stars (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels) to the mound. Atlanta will counter with Brandon Beachy against Halladay on Friday, Tommy Hanson against Lee on Saturday, and Derek Lowe against Hamels on Sunday.

The similarities between the Phillies and Braves do not end with pitching.

"Actually, we're similar in a lot of ways if you think about it," Manuel said. "Our runs scored, and their hitting is a lot like us. They definitely have been doing a lot because of their pitching."

The Phillies are seventh in the National League in runs and the Braves are eighth. The Phillies are 10th in batting with a .247 average. The Braves are 14th with a .240 average.

Perhaps the team that can hit better when the games matter most will be the one that wins the NL East.

And the scout who likes Atlanta's pitching a little better still believes the Phillies are the better team.

"I would say the Phillies because they have the guys who have done it before," he said. "They are battle-tested over the last five years. They are not going to panic. People say they win all these close games, so they must be lucky, but they're not. It's by design. They just wear you down."


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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