Braves set to conclude a memorable May
Before looking at how the Braves have positioned themselves to move into first place within any of the next three days, I want to thank my father, uncle and each of you who have given us this opportunity to take time today to remember why we have been afforded the chance to enjoy the freedoms provided us here in the United States.
Based on the way the Braves have played over the course of the past three weeks, there was growing reason to believe there could come a point where they would start seriously challenging Philadelphia’s National League East supremacy. But two weeks ago, when they sat a season-high 6 1/2 games back, there certainly wasn’t much reason to think they could enter June as the division leaders.
With the Phillies having scored a total of seven runs while losing six of their past eight games, their manager Charlie Manuel brings a staggered bunch into Turner Field this week. Winners of 15 of their past 19 games, the Braves enter this afternoon’s series opener just a half-game back in the NL East race.
Over the course of the previous four seasons, the Braves never even held a share of first place after May 15. In fact during the 2006, 2008 and 2009 seasons, they never sat above second place this late in the season after April 12.
Now if Phil Niekro can get his arm loose and find some of his get his knuckleball to start dancing again this week, the Braves might really be able to prolong Philadelphia’s offensive woes this week.
The Phillies have been shutout five times over the course of their past eight games and the only time they scored during any of the six losses that encompassed this span was when they tallied three ninth-inning runs after knuckleballer Tim Wakefield blanked them for eight innings on May 23.
Forty-eight hours after being handcuffed by Wakefield’s knuckler, the defending National League champs were blanked by the one delivered by R.A. Dickey. This prompted Bobby Cox to playfully tell one of the members of his club’s media relations staff, “why don’t you throw Niekro in there as one of our probables for the Phillies series.”
“With that lineup, it’s just a matter of time before they bust loose,” Chipper Jones said. “Fortunately I like our pitching staff and I think our pitching staff can continue to hold them down.”
With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe set to take the mound this week, the Braves seemingly match up much better than the Phillies, who will not be sending Roy Halladay or Jamie Moyer to the mound during this week’s series.
Like knuckleballers have been Philadelphia’s kryptonite, Moyer arguably had the same effect on the Braves when they endured their nine-game losing streak at the end of April. The 47-year-old left-hander has allowed at least four earned runs in six of his first 10 starts this year. But in two outings against Atlanta he has completed 15 innings without surrendering an earned run.
Halladay marked the beginning of that nine-game losing streak and the next night Moyer prolonged it by throwing six scoreless innings at Turner Field. Seven days later, the Braves had endured a nine-day stretch during which they had hit .223 and totaled 17 runs.
As miserable as that span seemed to be, the potent Phillies offense has actually been even worse recently. During their past eight games, they have batted just .186 and tallied seven runs.
Within these eight games, the Phillies have missed Jimmy Rollins’ presence at the top of their lineup and seen Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth combine to hit .130 (11-for-84) with two extra-base hits (a double and a triple).
In the 16 games played since Martin Prado began handling the leadoff role on virtually an everyday basis, the Braves have hit .289 and scored 5.6 runs per game. Whey exited Philadelphia on May 9, they had gone through the season’s first 31 games hitting .232 and scoring 3.9 runs per game.
It appears this is a much different Braves club than the one that lost four of its first six games to the Phillies this year. But if they are going to maximize the dividends created by the turnaround they have enjoyed this month, they need to make a statement this week at Turner Field.
Exiting this series in first place would simply be a by-product of the more important opportunity to gain further confidence by claiming a series victory against these Phillies, who are currently vulnerable and always dangerous.
NOTES: If the Braves are able to claim a victory with Hanson on the mound this afternoon, they will have gone 20-8 in May. In other words no matter what happens in this series opener, they will not lose more games during this 31-day stretch than they did during that forgettable nine-game stretch in April…Jason Heyward enters this series opener with an NL-best 1.017 OPS. He’s legitimized his candidacy for an All-Star bid and also given reason to be an early MVP favorite…Prado leads the NL with a .325 batting average. Back when they were playing in the Minors, Brian McCann predicted Prado would win a batting title. We’ll see if his words prove prophetic this year.