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The Last Stand of the Philadelphia Phillies: Phillies vs. Braves Series Preview

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The Phillies will attempt to keep their slim chances at the National League East title alive when they take on the Braves in a four-game series

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, many of us said that we’d be happy if the Phillies could merely remain in contention for most of the season. With less than two weeks left to play, the Phillies have yet to be eliminated from the playoffs, so they have certainly attained that goal.

However, along the way, something changed. The Phillies outperformed initial expectations, and perhaps more importantly, the rest of the division didn’t assert itself. The heavily favored Washington Nationals stumbled, and while the Braves have played well, they certainly haven’t put a stranglehold on the division either. Because of that, missing the playoffs would now be viewed as a disappointment.

While disappointment is the most likely outcome, the Phillies do still have a shot at winning the East. This upcoming four-game series against the Braves gives the Phillies a prime opportunity to make up ground. If they can win at least three of the four games, winning the East is still possible. If they can somehow sweep Atlanta, things will become very interesting. On the other hand, if the Phillies stumble, it will essentially be the death knell of the season.

The Last Time They Met

For some reason, the schedule-makers chose to have the Phillies and Braves play a lot of games before Memorial Day, and then not have them meet again until late September. The Braves had the advantage in those early games, winning 7 of 12, although the Phillies did take the last series.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
Phillies fans saw a lot of Freddie Freeman in the early part of the season
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

And Since Then

The Braves have put themselves in good position, with a 5.5 game lead in the East. Just about a week ago, they looked like they were going to render this series meaningless. They were on a six-game winning streak, and the words “magic number” were getting tossed around with impunity.

Just when Braves fans were feeling confident enough to order playoff tickets, the team went on a four-game losing streak which served to tighten a few sphincters in the greater Atlanta era.

Starting Pitching Matchups

Thursday: Kevin Gausman vs. Vince Velasquez

Gausman was acquired from the Orioles in late July. It might seem like a bad idea to trade for a player from such a horrible team (Manny?), especially since Gausman’s numbers weren’t especially great. But he pitched quite well for the Braves in the first month after his arrival. However, since September began, he’s shown signs that he’s reverting back to his pre-deadline state of mediocrity.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta Braves
Kevin Gausman has not been good lately
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Velasquez faced the Braves three times early in the season and went 0-3. Wins and losses don’t always reflect how well a pitcher performed, but rest assured that Velasquez did not pitch well. Unfortunately, Velasquez hasn’t pitched well in September either, with a 9.82 ERA in three starts this month.

Friday: Julio Teheran vs. Nick Pivetta

Teheran is a two-time All-Star who usually gives the Braves a good start, but he does have the occasional blowups. He made three starts against the Phillies in the first month of the season, and pitched poorly in two of them.

Pivetta has an extremely short leash these days. He hasn’t pitched more than five innings in his past four starts, and it seems like Gabe Kapler doesn’t hesitate to call on the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. He’s had four starts against Atlanta, and the last one was by far his best, with seven shutout innings.

Saturday: Sean Newcomb vs. Jake Arrieta

Newcomb tends to be either very good or very bad. He’s given up five or more runs in eight starts this season, but he also has thirteen starts allowing one or fewer runs. Most of those good starts came earlier in the season, since his ERA in the second half is 5.06.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at San Francisco Giants
Sean Newcomb is prone to bad starts
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Arrieta has had a disappointing season, but he could still salvage it with a strong showing in the final two weeks. As a playoff-tested veteran, he is no stranger to pitching in pressure-filled environments. This start may go a long way towards shaping fan opinion of him and whether or not it was a good idea to sign him.

Sunday: Mike Foltynewicz vs. Aaron Nola

The Phillies season may very well be on the line on Sunday, so it seems fitting that both teams will have their best starters on the mound. Nola will get his fair share of Cy Young Award votes, but Folty will likely receive some consideration as well. Folty has four starts against the Phillies with a 1.96 ERA. Nola’s stats against the Braves are nearly as good, with a 2.95 ERA in three starts.

Keep Them in the Park?

You know how the Phillies are very dependent on home runs for their offense? The Braves utilize a different approach. They are only seventh in the National League in homers, but rank second in batting average. They’ve got two regulars hitting over .300 and a third (Ronald Acuna Jr.) is close at .293. It seems to be working out well for them, since they’ve scored the third most runs in the league.

Boo This Man

Speaking of Acuna, he’s exactly the type of hitter that the Phillies sorely lack. While he wouldn’t be the first player to stumble after a promising rookie year, it certainly looks like he’s going to be a problem for the Phillies and the other East teams for years to come.

I’m not saying that the Phillies should come out and hit Acuna with a pitch the first time he comes to the plate. But they’d darn well better come up with a way to get him out.

St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves
Ronald Acuna is shaping up to be a long term problem for the Phillies
Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The Killer H’s

In Wednesday night’s win, the main sources of offense were Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera. When the season began, those two were expected to be the team’s biggest threats at the plate, and they mostly lived up to that billing in April.

But since the first month of the season, it seems that either one of both of them have been in a slump at any given time. As a result, the Phillies offense has been largely underwhelming for much of the year.

If we want to be optimistic about the Phillies chances, then you’d better hope that last night was a sign that both men are going to embark on hot streaks over the final days of the season.

It’s Going to be a Playoff-like Environment! Ugh.

It’s been seven years since the Phillies qualified for the postseason, so many fans may have forgotten what playoff baseball is like. We have idealized memories of Roy Halladay no-hitters and Shane Victorino home runs, but we may not remember what happens in between those highlights.

While the playoffs can indeed be thrilling, they can also be long, dreary slogs that feature countless mound visits by Jorge Posada and Tony LaRussa making multiple pitching changes in an inning. Playoff games can be ultimately rewarding, but it can also be torture as you live and die with every pitch.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Oakland Athletics
Tony LaRussa is a big reason why playoff baseball can be so unpleasant to watch
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We’ve seem the way that Kapler manages games that aren’t essentially elimination games, and it isn’t always pretty to watch. With the Phillies season on the line and 39 players at his disposal, these next four games might be very tough to watch at times.

But hey, I’ll take it. Seeing the Phillies play meaningful games in late September is much better than trying to feign interest in a team that is headed for 90+ losses.

No Chop Zone

With these games taking place in Atlanta, we unfortunately all know what’s coming. You know what would be great? If the Phillies could find a way to get out to early leads in every game, and never allow the Braves to get even a hint of a rally going. That way, we wouldn’t have to listen to that stupid Tomahawk Chop cheer that is somehow still a thing.

Seriously, it is the year 2018. How is the Tomahawk Chop still a thing? The Phillies need to find a way to ruin that cheer much like Eagles fans did to the Vikings’ “Skol” cheer.

Prediction

While I don’t think the Phillies are going to make the playoffs, they’re also not going to make it easy on anybody. They’ll take three out of four and hope will survive for another few days.