Phillies-Braves: What you need to know
Phillies (45-54) at Atlanta Braves (54-44) 7:35 p.m. on CSN
Despite trailing by 14½ games in the NL East and 9½ in the wild card race, the Phillies’ series this weekend in Atlanta is crucial. Over the next six games, the Phils travel to face the Braves and Nationals in a season-defining stretch.
If Charlie Manuel’s team has any hope of competing for a playoff spot in September, the Phillies’ recent surge must continue against two tough NL East opponents. The next six games feature several intriguing pitching matchups, and that starts on Friday at Turner Field. Starting pitchers
Fresh off signing his six-year, $144 million contract extension, Cole Hamels takes the mound for the Phillies.
Hamels, 11-4 with a 3.23 ERA, makes his second start of the season against the Braves. He had an even outing against the Braves on May 1 that looked like this: 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 9 groundballs, 9 flyballs.
He allowed three home runs in his last start for the first time since June 2010, but Hamels is truly having a stellar 2012 season. June and July (4.12 ERA) haven’t been as good as April and May (2.43), but Hamels has had swing-and-miss stuff since the Phils’ home opener. He leads the NL by inducing a swinging strike on 12.9 percent of pitches.
He’s opposed by new Braves righty Ben Sheets, former ace of the Milwaukee Brewers. Sheets is 2-0 in two starts with a 0.00 ERA. He’s pitched six innings in each start without surrendering a run, and has struck out as many batters (11) as he’s allowed reach base.
The 34-year-old Sheets missed the entirety of 2009 and 2011 because of elbow surgeries. At his peak, Sheets was one of the best pitchers in the National League. From 2004-08 he struck out 785 batters and walked just 152 for an NL-best 5.16 K/BB ratio.
The last time Sheets faced the Phillies was in Sept. 2008, when the Phillies tagged him for five runs in six innings in the first game of an important four-game sweep over Milwaukee.Streaky Braves
Atlanta has been streaky all season and it started on Opening Day. The Braves lost their first four games of the season before winning 10 of 11. They lost eight straight games at one point in May, then won six in a row two weeks later.
Atlanta had a seven-game winning streak that sandwiched the All-Star break, then lost two games before alternating three wins with three losses. They’ve won two in a row heading into this series.Leaning on their leaders
During the Phillies’ four-game winning streak, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard combined to go 10 for 28 with two homers, nine RBI, five runs, three doubles and seven walks.
The Braves, too, have been led by their veterans in July. Chipper Jones is hitting .365/.420/.603 this month with three homers and 13 RBI. Brian McCann, who struggled from April to June, is batting .309 with seven homers and 16 RBI.
McCann’s been harming whichever Phillie has taken the mound lately. He’s homered in each of his last five games vs. the Phils and has 13 RBI during that span. Key matchups
It’s not exactly the best news for Hamels that Jones and McCann are rolling, because they’ve hit him well in their careers. The duo is batting .282 off Hamels with four home runs, 10 doubles and 19 RBI in 85 at-bats.
Hamels has struggled to retire Martin Prado, too. The Braves’ leftfielder is 15 for 45 (.333) off him.
They haven’t seen him in nearly four years, but several Phillies have great numbers against Sheets. Juan Pierre is 10 for 30 and Ty Wigginton is 12 for 36. Howard has a homer, a double and two walks off Sheets in seven plate appearances.Sound off
Predict the Phillies’ record over the next six games (at ATL, at WSH). E-mail Corey Seidman at email@example.com