Games played when the temperature sits around Bobby Abreu's uniform number rarely merit the term "critical," but this week's three-game tilt at Turner Field against the hated Atlanta Braves might well qualify. With the season a week old, the Phillies are already in their usual April hole: they trail the division-leading Mets by three and a half games. Perhaps worse, they've probably squandered whatever public goodwill was engendered by last season's late playoff push, the Rollins hit streak, and the firing of fan (and TGP) whipping boy Ed Wade.
Atlanta hasn't generally been a happy place for the Phils, but it's arguable that they're facing the Braves at the right time. A 6-5 walkoff loss in San Francisco Sunday was doubly painful for Bobby Cox's club, as both Chipper Jones (career .337 hitter vs. the Phils) and Marcus Giles suffered injuries that likely will keep them out at least for Monday night's game. The usually vaunted Atlanta pitching has struggled early as well, with the Braves rotation posting a composite 10.09 ERA. Its best two starters, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, are not scheduled to pitch against the Phils. Chris Reitsma, the Atlanta closer by default after Kyle Farnsworth did not re-sign with the club last winter, blew the save yesterday and has a 9.82 ERA.
On the other hand, what the Braves have done so far is hit. Andruw Jones, coming off a major league-best 51 homers last season, already has two with 12 RBI. New shortstop Edgar Renteria, who endured a disastrous 2005 campaign in Boston, has enjoyed his NL homecoming with a .387 average and 10 RBI through the first week. Outfielder Ryan Langerhans also has two homers in just 18 at-bats. As a team, the Braves already have put 53 runs on the board; the Phillies have plated all of 21.
Of course, this was not how things were supposed to go, and presumably it's not how things will remain. But for all the focus on the Phils' shoddy pitching thus far, they've gotten at least competitive starts in four out of six games, and the bullpen was doing sterling work until Aaron Fultz melted down with two out in the 8th in the finale against the Dodgers. The problem is the offense. David Bell's insistence that he was ready to start the season again has led to terrible early results: he's 1-14 (.071) with a .419 OPS, and has committed two errors in just seven chances. With three right-handers--John Thomson, Jorge Sosa, and Kyle Davies--slated to pitch for Atlanta, Bell should have a comfy spot on the bench for the balance of the series... but then, that should have been the case for the balance of 2005, with Placido Polanco manning the hot corner.
Brett Myers pitches tonight for the Phillies, looking to bounce back from his five-walk, two-homer outing against St. Louis last Wednesday. After an off-day Tuesday, Cory Lidle and Gavin Floyd are scheduled for the final two games of the series.