Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but those Atlanta Braves are awfully pesky. After the Phils quickly trimmed a six game deficit to a couple of games a week or two ago, the Braves have matched the Phillies win for win. Their own hot streak has had some particularly hard to swallow wins for Phils fans, the latest of which came last night on another blown save by the Dodgers. I suppose that’s just the baseball gods evening things out, though. So the Phillies still have plenty of time to reel in Atlanta, but it could end up being a harder task than many expect. With that in mind, the Phillies need a back-up plan. Securing the wild-card position is the first step to making the post-season and the Phillies find themselves tied with the Giants with San Francisco coming to town for a crucial three game series.
From my safe perch atop the East Coast bias tower I can spit out some generalities about the Giants. They have good starting pitching, they’re extremely tough at home, their offense lacks a little kick…things of that nature. The Giants aren’t a team that scares you, especially when the rotation sets up to miss Tim Lincecum, but then again who in the National League is really scary? The Giants are in contention, and if the Phillies are going to get a handle on the wild-card before running down Atlanta, it will help if they win this series. As I said there will be no Lincecum and no Halladay either, still plenty of storylines to boost this mid-week clash of 2nd place teams.
In Philadelphia, we’re on Utley and Howard watch. The two major offensive weapons for the Phils have been out for some time, Utley much longer than Howard, but there is word they could both return this week. Whether or not it is in time for the Giants isn’t as important as just getting them back in the order and sitting down Wilson Valdez and Mike Sweeney (no offense, guys). Howard has been testing his injured ankle for a few days, and Chase Utley has been on a rehab assignment in Clearwater. My gut feeling is that a return by Utley this week would be a little rushed, maybe not in a health sense, but in a baseball sharpness sense. As much as I love Chase, I’d rather see him knock off the rust with 20 Minor League ABs, rather than working through it during an important series. Howard’s shorter DL stint and power make him a no-brainer to insert back into the lineup as soon as possible.
The Giants arrive in town with some interesting faces. Pat Burrell returns with a fresh bounce in his step as the Giants left-fielder. Burrell is one of the most interesting cases of player/fan interaction in this city’s history. For every “they booed Don McNabb” story there should be one on how the fans babied Burrell through a miserable .209 season. It was strange to see, as is the outpouring of love Burrell usually receives when he returns to town. I suppose he just came along at the right time, the team was showing signs of improvement, and the fans wanted so badly for him to be a superstar, but it didn’t quite work out. I expect another warm reception tonight, though. If you aren’t a Burrell sympathizer, perhaps you’ll be interested in seeing the Giants stand-out rookie, Buster Posey. Posey has been electric since his mid-season call-up, and gives the Giants lineup some much-needed punch. This isn’t like years past when they were Panda Sandoval and 8 outs.
In terms of pitching match-ups, the series may well hinge on who gets the better of Zito/Oswalt in the opener tonight. Lil’ Roy was excellent in his home debut, and will be looked upon for a similar performance. Zito has had a resurgence of sorts this season, and a sloppy left-hander always makes me a bit nervous against the Phillies. After tonight, you’d probably give an edge to Matt Cain on Wednesday, and a slight one to Cole Hamels on Thursday. The Phillies will need to give Cole some support, of course, and I think the pitching (maybe even Joe Blanton) will be good in this series. It’ll likely come down to who can put a couple of runs on the board, and how the Phillies’ bullpen responds.
I’ve been predicting a lot of 2 of 3s lately. Slow and steady, just win the series, and that’s what the Phillies need to do here. Keep chipping away, hope the Nats can play spoiler.