Jayson Werth struck the first blow in the Phillies-Braves series before the Braves even got to town.
Werth’s two-run blast to the deepest part of Citizens Bank Park capped a four-run ninth inning Sunday as the Phillies rallied past Washington, 7-6, to complete a sweep of the Nationals. More importantly, Werth’s walkoff homer restored the Phillies’ three-game lead over Atlanta, changing the complexion of this week’s showdown with the Braves, which gets underway tonight.
The Braves, not known as a good road team, had completed a sweep of their own Sunday with a 6-3 victory over the Mets in New York, and they had done so in dramatic fashion.
Derek Lee broke a 2-2 tie by crushing a grand slam on a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the seventh inning. One hundred miles away, the Nationals’ Michael Morse drove a 3-2 pitch from Joe Blanton over the right-field fence for a three-run homer that gave the Nationals a 4-3 lead.
When the Nationals extended their lead to 6-3, you know the Braves could see the symmetry and sense the destiny. They were going to come to Philadelphia with loads of momentum. Just two games back in the standings.
Then Werth delivered his blow. Woooooooosh! The air was sucked right out of the Braves’ balloon.
The Braves will surely put on – what else? – a brave face. They’ll say all the right things: They can still gain ground, there are still 12 games to play, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
But the truth is they have to be deflated, or as deflated as a team can be after completing a sweep on the road.
If the Braves had entered the National League East showdown with the Phillies just two games behind in the standings, all they had to do was win the series to cut the Phillies’ lead to one game. Now, a 2-1 series victory still leaves them two games back.
The only hope the Braves have of leaving Philadelphia as close as seemed possible before Werth’s blast is to sweep the Phillies. With the Phillies throwing their trio of aces at the Braves, an Atlanta sweep is highly unlikely. Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt haven’t lost during September.
The funny thing is that for most of the summer I’ve been saying that the Phillies were the team that couldn’t afford to be more than three games behind entering their six games against Atlanta during the season’s final two weeks. The Phillies, however, have reversed that equation.
The Phillies have won seven straight series to overtake the Braves and move into first place. Their current winning streak stands at seven games, and they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games.
The Phillies’ task in the head-to-head series against Atlanta is no longer to close the gap, as most of us had envisioned. Instead, their task is to put the Braves away and wrap up the NL East crown.
If the Phillies win two out of three in this series, the Braves will be four games out of first place. A sweep, of course, would finish off the Braves’ realistic hopes of capturing the division and re-set their focus on the wild-card race.
This series isn’t crucial for the Phillies’ postseason hopes. They could afford to lose the series, 2-1, and still be relatively comfortable in terms of making the playoffs. The Braves, with San Diego 2½ games and Colorado 3½ games behind them in the wild-card race – not to mention the NL West-leading Giants, who are just a half-game ahead of the Padres – don’t have the luxury of losing this series.
The Phillies are in a comfortable position. Their position is considerably more comfortable than it would have been without the four-run ninth inning Sunday.
This series with Atlanta, however, is still meaningful. Putting additional distance between themselves and the Braves would enable the Phillies to properly prepare for the playoffs.
As the division leader, the Phillies want to avoid going to Atlanta in October for the final weekend of the regular season still needing to clinch the division. With the division clinched before the final series, the Phillies could rest some regulars and get their pitching rotation set up for the first round of the playoffs.
The Phillies have an opportunity to take a big step toward making the final series with the Braves meaningless – at least for them. That’s why the series that begins tonight is so important.
This crucial Phillies-Braves series starts Monday night. But the Phillies have already landed the first blow.