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Braves Vs. Phillies Preview: Atlanta Heads To Philadelphia With First Place On The Line

These are the series baseball fans live for. Despite nearly three months remaining in the season, this weekend's series between the Braves and Phillies is going to feel like a playoff matchup.

Citizen's Bank Park is going to be rocking, the Phillies are tossing three of the best pitchers in baseball out to the mound and the Braves arrive as the hottest team in baseball. Add this to the two clubs simply despising each other and fans should expect fireworks early in often in Philly. 

Get ready.

The Phillies are 55-33, which is good for the best record in baseball. They sit 2.5 games ahead of Atlanta in the NL East standings. Sweep and they have a comfortable lead to begin the second half with; get swept and they're suddenly no longer in first place after occupying that spot for more than two months. Needless to say, the implications from this series could (and probably will) play a huge role in how the division and wild card races play out.

Lets take a closer look at Charlie Manuel's club...

Offense:

The Phillies are no longer the offensive juggernaut they once were a few seasons ago, but they're still capable of filling up the scoreboard on any given night in any given inning. The health and availability of Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino are up in the air, but Braves fans should fully expect to see those two in the lineup if history is any indication.

The afore mentioned Victorino (.303/.376/.524, 153 wRC+) is having a phenomenal year and has been leader both at the plate and in the field. Chase Utley (.287/.380/.462, 137 wRC+) continues to be the incredible second baseman that he is and Jimmy Rollins (.264/.338/.384, 107 wRC+) is a solid, consistent force at the top of their lineup. Ryan Howard (.258/.356/.486, 126 wRC+) isn't the MVP-candidate he once was, but he always saves his best for Atlanta and figures to punish them once again. Polanco (.274/.331/.346, 89 wRC+), should he be able to play, is an average hitter at this late stage of his career.

Carlos Ruiz (.248/.351/.338, 91 wRC+) came back down to Earth (as everyone thought he would) after his insanely fortunate 2010 season, but he still always seems to come up with the clutch hit whenever Philly needs it most. Top-prospect Domonic Brown (.231/.322/.410, 102 wRC+) has some work to do on his approach and swing, but he's having a solid rookie season. Raul Ibanez (.236/.285/.400, 85+) has been bad at the plate and even worse in the field, but John Mayberry (.239/.325/.422, 110 wRC+) has been an adequate replacement. 

All-in-all, they're a solid group that takes a lot of walks and makes the opposing pitcher work to get outs. If the Phillies are known for anything, it's that they won't just string poor at-bats together. The Braves pitchers will need to get ahead in the count and force the Philly hitters to swing at their pitches, not the pitches they want to swing at.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday, 7:10EDT - Brandon Beachy vs. Roy Halladay - SportSouth

W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Brandon Beachy 3-1 11 11 0 0 0 0 61.1 50 23 22 8 15 72 3.23 1.06
W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Roy Halladay 11-3 18 18 6 0 0 0 136.1 123 38 37 8 17 131 2.44 1.03


Saturday, 4:05EDT - Tommy Hanson vs. Cliff Lee - FOX

W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Tommy Hanson 10-4 16 16 0 0 0 0 96.1 66 30 27 8 34 103 2.52 1.04
W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Cliff Lee 9-6 20 18 4 4 0 0 129.1 113 44 42 11 27 128 2.92 1.08


Sunday, 1:10EDT - Derek Lowe vs. Cole Hamels - SportSouth

W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Derek Lowe 5-6 19 19 0 0 0 0 107.0 105 51 50 7 41 80 4.21 1.36
W-L G GS CG SHO SV BS IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Cole Hamels 10-4 18 18 1 0 0 0 124.0 96 33 33 7 22 115 2.40 .95


Bullpen:

The Phillies bullpen has been devastated by injury, though a few guys have really stepped up for the club in the late innings. Antonio Bastardo has filled in perfectly as the new closer with Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson in the disabled list. Mike Stutes has been a solid set-up man as well. Outside of those two, you would be hard pressed to find any relievers having a good year. David Herndon has been OK, but guys like Danys Baez and Drew Carpenter have struggled mightily. 

Basically, when healthy, the Phillies have an above-average bullpen. Unfortunately for them, they aren't healthy and have been hit around in recent weeks. Having Halladay, Lee and Hamels usually pitch 7+ innings have helped limit their bullpen use this year, but if for some reason one of those three had to leave a game early against Atlanta, we should be able to take advantage of most of their relievers.

In conclusion...

It's just July 8, but this series is huge. While there are still more than 70 games to be played, the players and managers would be fooling themselves if they called this, "just another series". The Phillies have their three best going, and even though Beachy, Hanson and Lowe are all solid, Philly certain has the advantage in terms of starting pitchers. Hopefully the Braves offense continues to hit well and they take two out of three, but it's best to remain level-headed and simply hope for one game on the road. 

Regardless of the outcome, it should be a heck of a series. Buckle up.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.