|September 25: Braves 10, Phillies 6 WP: Bennett (2-0) LP: Moyer (13-12)|
|September 26: Phillies 5, Braves 2 WP: Lohse (9-12) LP: Hudson (16-10) S: Myers (20)|
|September 27: Phillies 6, Braves 4 WP: Kendrick (10-4) LP: Smoltz (14-8) S: Myers (21)|
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Through 156 games, they've followed the script to the letter: awful start, recovery in May, stumble before the all-star break, trials and tribulations, surprise help from unexpected quarters, in good position to start the last week. If past practice holds, though, in six days' time we'll be facing the double ache of a near miss and the interminable off-season to endure before they get to try again.
jonk earlier gave a great summary of both why this year might be different, and why it might not be. It's worth noting, though, that this is the first time since 2003, when the Marlins ended their hopes and went on to a world championship, that the Phillies are facing another contender in the final week: the Atlanta Braves, former kings of the division. The Braves, left for dead in early September, have been a hot team ever since coming back to beat the Phils in that nightmare 9-8 game on September 5, the second-worst loss I can remember in 30 years of fandom. (Here's #1.) They're 12-5 since then, including 7-1 in their last eight games. They remain on life support in the playoff race, five games back for the NL East lead and trailing the Phils and Padres by three in the wild card race. But their three best starters take the mound in OFJOAB this week, and it's possible that they're in the Phillies' heads just as the Phils were in the Mets' heads over the last month.
As for the Phillies, it's hard to remember an off-day more badly needed than Monday's. Despite their success on the 8-2 road trip through New York, St. Louis and Washington, this is, or hopefully was, a team running on fumes. You know that top relievers Brett Myers, Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero all pitched, for the most part superbly, in five straight games before getting the day off in Sunday's 5-3 loss; what you might not know is that over the last six games, many of the team's best hitters have stumbled despite facing less-than-imposing Cardinals and Nationals pitchers. Second-half hero Pat Burrell is 5 for his last 22 (.227), Jayson Werth is 4 for his last 25 (.160), and MVP hopeful Jimmy Rollins is 7 for his last 32 (.219). As a team, the Phils are hitting .232 over that span; they managed to win four of those games because their much-maligned pitching staff has held the opposition to a .234 average and an almost-unfathomable .297 slugging percentage.
Against the Braves--the third-highest scoring offense in the NL--that's unlikely to continue, so the bats must wake up. Unfortunately, they'll be facing three pitchers with a cumulative 41-26 record this season. Chuck James, Tuesday's starter, is 11-10 overall and 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA in three starts against the Phillies this year; Tim Hudson is 16-9 against everyone, 0-1, 4.39 vs. the Phils; John Smoltz has a 14-7 season record and no decisions in one matchup against the Phillies--the Opening Day game the Phils lost late. The Phillies counter with Jamie Moyer tonight, Kyle Lohse against Hudson Wednesday, and an as-yet unnamed starter--presumably Adam Eaton or Kyle Kendrick--to face Smoltz in Thursday's finale. Overall, Atlanta has won 8 of the 15 games between the two teams this season.