The Philadelphia Phillies (38-30) sat alone at the top of the National League East Division standings for seven straight weeks, covering every day from April 25 through last weekend.
Losses in eight of their last 13 games, including three of their four games so far this week, opened the door for the Atlanta Braves (40-29) to make a move.
The Braves took full advantage, winning 10 of their last 12 to surge past the Phillies and into first place in the division. Atlanta is now riding a seven-game winning streak.
The two rivals will meet for the second time this year over the weekend, and the NL East Division lead will be directly on the line. The site will be SunTrust Park in Atlanta this time, after the Phillies swept the Braves out of Citizens Bank Park in the season’s very first series back in late March.
The Braves have performed far better statistically in the 2019 season. Their 5.17 runs-per-game ranks fifth in the National League, while the Phillies 4.87 is the league’s seventh-ranked mark. At the plate, the Braves out-rank the Phillies in OPS (4-9), home runs (5-11), and stolen bases (8-15) in the NL.
On the mound among the 15 NL teams, the Braves out-rank the Phillies in batting average against (7-13) and OPS against (9-13), though Phillies hurlers have a slightly better ERA.
This is an early gut-check for the Phillies. Struggling for the last couple of weeks, they now look up in the standings at their weekend hosts. They will have to listen to Braves fans doing the obnoxious ‘Tomahawk Chop’ any time the home team does anything positive. How the Phillies respond to this challenge over the next three days will reveal much about their own collective character.
TOP LINEUP THREATS
Freddie Freeman: The 10-year veteran first baseman is well on his way to a fourth NL All-Star nod, slashing .311/.401/.592 and leading the Braves with 18 homers, 37 extra-base hits, 46 RBIs, and 49 runs scored.
Nick Markakis: 35-year-old, 14-year big-league veteran right fielder is slashing .276/.368/.431 with 35 RBIs. He is second on the club with 43 runs scored.
Ronald Acuna Jr. The 21-year-old center fielder was last year’s NL Rookie of the Year and is not suffering a sophomore slump. He is slashing .285/.365/.493 and is second on the team with 15 homers and 45 RBIs and leads them with nine steals.
Dansby Swanson: 25-year-old shortstop has broken out with 13 homers, 27 extra-base hits, 43 RBIs, 42 runs scored, and six stolen bases.
Ozzie Albies: 22-year-old second baseman has 10 homers, 26 extra-base hits, 41 runs scored, and five steals.
Austin Riley: The NL’s Rookie of the Month for May, the 22-year-old rookie left fielder is hitting .290 with a .617 slugging percentage and has 10 homers and 29 RBIs even though he wasn’t called up until May 15.
Brian McCann: 35-year-old, 15-year big-league veteran catcher is the lefty side of an almost straight platoon. He is hitting .272 with five homers and 24 RBIs in just 134 plate appearances.
Josh Donaldson: A 33-year-old, nine-year big-league veteran third baseman, Donaldson signed a one-year, $23 million contract with the Braves as a free agent back in late November. The 2015 AL MVP while with the Toronto Blue Jays is a 3x American League All-Star and has a pair of Silver Slugger Awards on his mantlepiece.
Donaldson has been a bit of a disappointment with Atlanta, slashing just .236/.349/.419 with nine homers and 27 RBIs. After starring with the Blue Jays, Donaldson suffered through an injury-marred season a year ago and was dealt to the Cleveland Indians, helping the Tribe to the AL Central crown with a solid performance down the stretch.
There is every chance that Donaldson is simply a one-year rental for Atlanta, with Riley taking over at his own more natural position beginning next season. For now, having Donaldson bust out with anything resembling his former Toronto MVP form would be a major boost to the already dangerous Braves lineup.
SCHEDULED STARTING PITCHERS
FRIDAY – Max Fried (25/L): 7-3, 3.75 ERA, 1.292 WHIP, 74 hits over 72 IP across 15 games (13 starts) with a 66/19 K:BB
SATURDAY – Sean Newcomb (26/L): 1-0, 2.59 ERA, 1.340 WHIP, 32 hits over 31.1 IP across 19 games (3 starts) with a 26/10 K:BB
SUNDAY – Mike Foltynewicz (27/R): 1-5, 6.02 ERA, 1.318 WHIP, 52 hits over 49.1 IP across nine starts with a 42/13 K:BB
KEY BENCH & BULLPEN PIECES
Tyler Flowers: splits the catching duties with McCann as the right-handed hitting half. Flowers has five homers and 11 extra-base hits over just 138 plate appearances.
Johan Camargo: 25-year-old was the Braves starting third baseman a year ago, but has become a utility player this year with the addition of Donaldson. He has been used at five different defensive positions and has 10 extra-base hits over 128 plate appearances.
Matt Joyce: 34-year-old, 12-year big-league veteran is a nice lefty bat off the bench with nine extra-base hits over just 75 plate appearances. He was a 2011 AL All-Star while with Tampa Bay.
Charlie Culberson: Utility man is slashing .354/.396/.625 over just 53 plate appearances with a half-dozen extra-base hits.
Luke Jackson: The 27-year-old righty has taken the Braves closer job and produced 10 saves with a 3.18 ERA and 1.235 WHIP. He has allowed 33 hits over 34 innings with a 49/9 K:BB ratio.
Josh Tomlin: Former starter with the Cleveland Indians, the 34-year-old, 10-year big-league veteran righty has allowed 31 hits over 35 innings across 23 appearances with a 22/3 K:BB.
A.J. Minter: Hard-throwing 25-year-old lefty could one day be the club’s closer. He was just activated earlier this week after spending nearly a month on the IL, and has struck out 18 over 13 innings this season.
Jacob Webb: 25-year-old right-hander has allowed 17 hits over 19.1 innings with a 20/10 K:BB.
Brian Snitker is a 63-year-old who has been in the Braves organization in one role or another for more than four decades, starting as a player and winding through the minor league coaching ranks. He served as the Braves bullpen coach in the late-1980’s, and was their third base coach from 2007-13.
In May 2016, Snitker was named as the interim manager to replace Fredi Gonzalez, who was fired with the club in last place. Five months later he was named the full-time skipper and is now in his third full season at the helm. He guided the club to the NL East crown a year ago, losing in four games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in an NLDS.
This is now the Braves third season playing at the ballpark, which is located in Cumberland, Cobb County, just 10 miles from the downtown Atlanta area. The ballpark is named for the local SunTrust Bank in a 25-year naming rights deal. A merger of that bank with BB&T will result in an eventual name change following this season.
SunTrust is billed as having the highest percentage of seats closer to the field than any ballpark in Major League Baseball. There is also air conditioning piped to every level of the ballpark to help during the hot Atlanta summer days.
There is a Monument Garden area displaying highlights of the franchise history. It is located in the concourse behind home plate, and features a statue of Baseball Hall of Fame living legend Hank Aaron, who played with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves for 21 seasons.
Dimensions down the line are 335 feet to left, 325 feet to right. The power alleys are roughly 375 (RC) and 385 (LC) feet, out to a 400-foot dead-center field wall. In the 2019 season, SunTrust ranks behind only Coors Field in Denver, Colorado and Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio in ESPN’s ‘Park Factors‘ as an offensive-leaning ballpark.
SERIES WEATHER REPORT
FRIDAY: sunny and upper-70’s at 7:20 pm first pitch with light winds and almost zero chance of rain
SATURDAY: partly cloudy and low-80’s at 7:20 pm first pitch with light winds and almost zero chance of rain
SUNDAY: mostly sunny and mid-80s at 1:20 pm first pitch with light winds and just a 5% chance of rain
(Forecast supplied via The Weather Channel)
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