Braves look to extend Phillies’ first-half woes
Asked before yesterday’s game if this weekend’s series in Philadelphia would feel different because of the Phillies’ first-half struggles, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez essentially said, “No because the Phillies are still the Phillies.”
Fortunately for the Braves, the Phillies are not the Phillies that the National League East has feared over the past five years. Yes, Ryan Howard will return tonight to join a lineup that was recently bolstered by Chase Utley’s return. But as the Braves attempt to end a disappointing first half on a positive note, they will not have to deal with Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels or the still-injured Roy Halladay.
Instead the Braves seem to have the advantage in each of this weekend’s pitching matchups — Tim Hudson vs. Kyle Kendrick; Tommy Hanson vs. Joe Blanton and Jair Jurrjens vs. Vance Worley.
OK, so maybe you don’t agree that the Braves have the advantage in Sunday’s matchup between Jurrjens and Worley. But the Braves’ hurler, who has proven to be a flyball pitcher, has posted a 1.80 ERA and allowed just two home runs in 40 innings offensively-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
Now back to the Phillies. Maybe they have dug themselves too big of a hole as they sit 10 games below .500 and 13 games behind the first-place Nationals in the NL East race. But with Howard back and Halladay returning after the break, this is a team that could certainly keep things interesting, especially given the fact there will be two available Wild Card spots available this year.
This simply adds to the importance of this weekend’s series. The Braves want to enter the All-Star break with some momentum and strengthen some of the confidence that has been weakened as they have won just 17 of their past 40 games.
But at the same time, this weekend will also provide a chance to create some separation from this still-dangerous Phillies club that has also won just 16 of their past 40 games.
Think about that. As bad as the Phillies have been during this injury-plagued first half, the Braves have been just one game better over their past 40 games.
Fortunately for the Braves, they owned the NL’s second-best record 40 games ago and are still within six games of the first-place Nationals.
Ben Sheets is scheduled to return to the Majors after the All-Star break and there is a chance Atlanta’s starting rotation will also welcome either Zack Greinke or another starting pitcher before the trade deadline. These additions will provide the Braves a better chance to find the consistency that has eluded them during the season’s first half.
But before looking toward what needs to happen after the All-Star break, the Braves will first focus on trying to halt their struggles against the Phillies. They have won just eight of the past 27 games played against the reigning NL East champs.
It’s no secret that Hudson has had his troubles against Howard, who is expected to return tonight for the first time since tearing his left Achilles tendon after grounding out to end last year’s National League Division Series against the Cardinals.
Howard has batted .327 with 6 home runs, a .429 on-base percentage and .712 slugging percentage in 52 career at-bats against Hudson. But it should be noted that three of those home runs were hit during a game played six years ago.
Since the start of the 2010 season, Howard has collected five hits, including a home run and a double, in 18 at-bats against Hudson. Not surprisingly, the competitive and confident pitcher has issued him just three walks during this span.
The Braves will be challenged tonight by Kendrick, who posted a 6.96 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .401 on-base percentage in his six June starts.
Of course, the Braves are still well aware of what Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija did to them on Monday night after producing similar numbers in June. But more importantly, they are well aware of the struggles they’ve had against Kendrick.
Kendrick has gone 5-1 with a 2.58 ERA in 10 career starts against the Braves. He has posted a 4.68 ERA in his other 100 career starts.