This weekend, the defending 13-time division champion Atlanta Braves will invade Citizens Bank Park for a showdown with the Phillies. Philadelphia has shown signs of life over the past week thanks in large part to the clutch hitting of left fielder Pat Burrell. Burrell's Major League leading 17 RBI are a major reason why the Phillies are currently hovering around the .500 mark despite terrible bullpen pitching that has plagued the team since the opening series against Washington. Add into that the fact that Jimmy Rollins is finally playing "small ball" and getting on base quite often as the leadoff hitter, and players such as Kenny Lofton and Bobby Abreu are producing early on, and it appears that this club may finally have the ingredients to be able to overcome that shaky bullpen.
Not to be overshadowed by the Phightin's hitting, the starting pitching has been solid all season long - Randy Wolf's lackluster performance against the Marlins on Tuesday night not withstanding - and this rotation appears to be the strongest it's been over the past three years. While it's too early to get carried away when it comes to expectations for the rest of the season, the starting five have put up solid numbers in the first week and a half of the season.
When Atlanta comes to town, Philadelphia will face a ball club that has put those numbers together consistently throughout the marathon that is the Major League Baseball season, and they have done it over the past thirteen years. Add stud pitcher Tim Hudson to an already solid rotation loaded with names like John Smoltz and Mike Hampton, and they have the ingredients to easily continue the tradition of excellence in Atlanta that began during the days of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Smoltz back in the 1990's. Phillies fans will get their first look at Hudson, who very easily could have been a Phillie in the offseason, had Ed Wade parted with just one or two of his so called "untouchable" prospects.
Look for this series to be an old fashioned battle between Braves pitching and Phillies hitting. The Phillies have been able to rattle Smoltz in his previous outings against the team in the past few seasons. It will be interesting to see if Burrell can continue his hot streak and catapult the Phillies into first place by Monday morning. Jim Thome has suffered a power outage early on and he has seen some success in recent memory against the Braves, tallying six home runs since 2003 against Atlanta.
Phillies pitching will have its hands full against the likes of Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, and Johnny Estrada among others in the powerful Braves lineup. If Gavin Floyd can once again go deep into his outing on Friday night and give the bullpen some rest, and Jon Lieber can hold his own as he's done in his previous two starts, then the Phils will have a chance at this thing. However, if Atlanta gets to Phillies starting pitching and brings the bullpen into play early on, it could be a very long weekend for the Phillies.
Prediction: The Phillies will manage to win one out of three games against the Braves, but Jim Thome will notch at least two home runs over the weekend.
Chuck Hixson's analysis…
The Phillies' quest to figure out a way to beat the Braves in a 162-game race begins this weekend with three games against them at Citizens Bank Park.
Although the Phillies have usually held their own against the perennial N.L. East champs in the season series - the season-series record has been 10-9 in one team or the other's favor in three of the last four seasons - it is the Phillies' starting pitching that usually can't keep up with the Braves' rotation over the course of the year.
The season is only nine games deep, but the Phillies' starters have put their best pitches forward. The rotation came busting out of the gate with a 4-0 record and a 2.23 ERA in the first seven games before Randy Wolf allowed five runs in six innings in a loss to the Marlins Tuesday and Cory Lidle ran into a buzzsaw named Dontrelle Willis Wednesday.
This weekend against the Braves the Phillies will have some intriguing head-to-head matchups with the Atlanta rotation. Friday will match two of the better young pitchers in the league when Gavin Floyd goes against Horacio Ramirez. Saturday is a battle of the staff aces when Jon Lieber goes against Jon Smoltz. On Sunday the teams' most impressive starters of the young season duel when Brett Myers (1-00, 0.73 ERA in two starts) goes against Mike Hampton (2-0, 1.29 ERA in two starts).
While Pat Burrell (.424, 4 HR, 17 RBI) has been absolutely rabid out of the gate, Jim Thome (.310, 0 HR, 4 RBI) has been pretty anonymous within the offense. The Phillies have been waiting for Burrell to have this type of dominating stretch so Thome could have some of the weight taken off his shoulders. With the Braves throwing two southpaws this weekend, the Phillies could use Burrell to stay hot and have him bat cleanup between Thome and fellow left-handed hitter Bobby Abreu.