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Sorry Atlanta Braves: Phillies Own September and NL East


I don’t have an EZ-Pass, and actually, I don’t do a whole lot of turnpike driving. Jayson Werth and the Phillies want to sip champagne again throughout the Fall. Photo: Joe Vallee Sr.But I invariably go through the same scenario each time I travel on Pennsylvania’s longest highway.

As I approach the exit tolls, and my wife initiates her scripted reminder of why I need to swallow my pride and apply for that little transponder, I veer away from the express lanes and slow from 75 miles-per-hour to a speed that would embarrass a power-walker.

Then, in the E-ZPass lane to my left, the punk in the Pontiac Grand Am that has made it his job to jockey for positioning with me over the last 35 miles cruises to the virtual checkered flag while I fumble through my change holder for the sixty-five cents needed to complete my payment.

And thanks to this monthly exercise, I now know how the 2010 Atlanta Braves must be feeling.

For the Phillies, the first 120 games of the 2010 season certainly were anything but an E-ZPass. The trip from May through August was riddled with potholes. But thanks to a healthy and revived offense, with only 14 games to go the 3-time defending NL East Champs are once again surging to the finish line.

You see, as much as the Phillies are identified by players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, they are becoming equally identifiable by their dominance in the final month of the season. The Phillies are once again the hottest team in baseball, with a 19-4 record over their last 23 games, and a 15-3 mark in September.

The Braves, meanwhile, are huffing and puffing their way through the stretch run. Their 9-9 record in September and 13-14 record over the last 27 games have resulted in a six-game swing that finds them out of the division lead and desperately clinging to the Wild Card.

Surely, it’s been difficult for the Braves to watch their once massive gap on the Phillies evaporate in a matter of weeks. There’s no doubt they’ve kept one eye on the rear view mirror, even when the Phillies were having a tough time finding enough healthy players to fill in a major league-caliber lineup card. You see, the Braves are well aware of the recent history of the Phillies in the month of September.

During the Phillies current tenure as NL East Champions (2007-Present) they have owned the final full month of the regular season. Their September record over the past four seasons stands at an incredible 66-35. That’s a winning percentage of .653, and there is no team in baseball that has been as consistently good down the stretch.

The Phillies dominance in September is likely the product of a number of factors: a lineup that thrives under pressure, close division races that have made Septembers crucial in recent years, and a manager that seems to get the team ready when it matters most. However, one tangible factor has been the team’s September offensive production. Quite frankly, the Phillies have torn the cover off the ball during the final month of the regular season. This year, they are batting a scalding hot .299 for the month of September while averaging a ridiculous 6.05 runs per game. In fact, since the 2007 season, the Phillies have averaged 5.37 runs per game in the month of September.

With nearly everyone healthy and hitting, perhaps all of those early-season visions of an unstoppable offensive machine are finally being realized. What makes the Phillies even scarier is that this white-hot offense is being paired with the most dominant pitching staff of their current four-year reign atop the National League.

But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth asking one question. Can the Braves do anything about this most recent Phillies late-season onslaught?

The Braves record over the past month seems to indicate that they may be on the ropes, but they have a huge opportunity to make a run at the Phillies. With six of their final fourteen games against the Phillies, they certainly can’t be counted out. Their attempted climb starts Monday when they begin a three-game series in Citizen’s Bank Park, during which they will face Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. That trio makes the Phillies’ recent 6.06 runs-per-game seem even more insurmountable.

There are some other ominous signs for the boys from Atlanta. Staff ace Tim Hudson  has been hit hard over the past month, and the rest of the pitching staff (bullpen included) is showing signs of fatigue. Add to that the fact that their best player is a rookie (albeit a phenomenal talent), and the Braves look more like a Wild Card team than a group ready to unseat the mighty Phillies.

The Braves called a players only meeting on Friday, an attempted remedy that the Phillies haven’t needed since July. During that meeting, Chipper Jones addressed his scuffling teammates, encouraging them to focus. “Focus on every pitch, on every play, on every at-bat.” He then made a statement that may have best described what it must be like to battle a team with the presence of the Philadelphia Phillies. “It’s hard to play in September with both hands wrapped around your neck.”

While Jones was likely referring to the pressure his teammates were putting on themselves, it’s quite possible that the suffocating grip of the Phillies was on the minds of everyone in that locker room.

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net  

Photo Credit: Joe Vallee Sr.:  josephv985@aol.com