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A Look Ahead: Into the Home Stretch

The Phillies are smokin’ hot right now and unfortunately for the lowly Pirates, a buzz saw is heading straight for the city of three rivers. The Phillies ship sets sail as they take on the Bucco’s in a three game series starting tonight at PNC Park, in downtown Pittsburgh.

The Phillies come into the series having won their last three, taking three of four from the New York Mets. The Phil’s head into the series 8-2 in their last ten games, currently sitting at a season high water mark of 22 games above .500. They still sit first place in the NL East and have held that position since May 30th.

The Pirates meanwhile are a dismal 19 games back in the NL Central and have had a complete estate sale this season, losing numerous starters to deadline deal trades. They are 5-5 in their last ten and 51-71 overall.

In the series opener, Phillies right-hander Joe Blanton takes the ball, carrying a 8-6 record and a 3.86 ERA. Blanton has been pitching out of his mind the past two months and saw a season-high plus seven ERA dwindle to it’s current mark. Although Blanton looked shaky in his last outing, he still went eight strong and allowed only three earned.

Pittsburgh will counter with righty Russ Ohlendorf. Ohlendorf has been decent for the Pirates this year, sporting a 4.15 ERA. In his last ten starts, he has allowed three runs or fewer in nine of them.

Wednesday Cole Hamels will look to get back on track after surrendering four runs to the Mets last Friday. Hamels has not shown the MVP caliber arm that he displayed last October and has most of the Delaware Valley wondering whether what we see is what we are going to get from the lefty. Facing the Pirates line-up can be a good remedy for a slumping pitcher, but Hamels has failed to feast on the weaker teams in baseball as well.

For the Pirates, lefty Paul Maholm gets the start. Despite being struck by come-backers in his last outing, he still pitched a solid game, lasting into the eighth inning. Maholm has been a bit of a Phillieskiller in his career going 3-1 lifetime with a 3.71 ERA in five career starts.

Closing the series out on Thursday for the Phils will be rookie sensation J.A. Happ. Happ has been stellar and all of the usual cliche’s to describe his performance this year have been well exhausted. Happ is 10-2 with a 2.59 ERA, good for fourth in the National League.

For the Buc’s, Flemington, NJ native Charlie Morton will get the start. Morton snapped a four-game losing streak in his last start however allowed 10 earned runs in just one inning in the start before that. Morton is 3-6 overall, with a plus five ERA. In his lone appearance against the Phillies, last season, he allowed five runs in two innings of work.

Following the Pirates series, the Phillies return to Citizens Bank Park to take on the Atlanta Braves in a series that could make or break the Braves season. Starting the week, the Phillies had a seven game lead on the Braves, but a bad series against Atlanta could find the Phillies getting hot around the collar.

The three-game set kicks off on Friday with the Braves Tommy Hanson taking the mound. Hanson, like Happ, is being heavily considered for Rookie of the Year honors. Hanson is 9-2 this season with a 3.12 ERA. Although he has been tough to hit all around, left-handed batters have had some success against him, batting .275.

On Saturday, the Braves will send out righty Derek Lowe, who has given the Phillies fits this season. Obviously burned up about last years NLCS performance against the Phillies, Lowe has only surrendered two runs and nine hits against the Phils in two starts this season, including a brilliant opening night performance in which he held the Phillies scoreless over eight innings. He enters the week 12-8 with a mediocre 4.48 ERA.

The Braves have yet to announce Sunday’s starter, although it is likely to be youngster Jair Jurrjens. Also, the Phillies have yet to announced this weekends starters, however they will likely send out Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee, and Joe Blanton.

The Phillies have been on a two month tear and despite a hiccup or two, show absolutely no signs of slowing down. Everyone with exception of Raul Ibanez, is hitting the ball, and even Ibanez is showing signs of breaking his post All-Star break slump.

Ryan Howard has been ridiculous at the plate over the past couple of weeks and is entering his annual late season slug-fest. Jayson Werth has been equally as hot and the combination of the two can and will carry the Phillies into the extended season.

This week it’s easy, the Fightin’s need to SWEEP the Pirates. Two of three is o.k, but they are a bad team, a really bad team, and there is no reason the Phillies can’t beat them into submission. Winning two against the Braves would be a success, but if they take care of business against Pittsburgh, two wins against the Braves is not imperative.

That being said, a sweep of the Braves could spell the end of Atlanta’s hopes for the division title. If the Braves sweep the Phil’s, they will give an injection of life to a team that can be dangerous, as they head into the final month. One win against the Braves and they merely inch a bit closer, no more no less.

My advice; STEP ON THEIR THROATS. No mercy.

By the way, heading into the week, the magic number stands at 33. Sweep the Bravos and we could see that number plunge into the 20’s. Just something to consider.

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