Winners of five straight, the Braves went into Philadelphia to play a Phillies team that sported an NL best record of 21-9.
But as things unwound throughout the series, the Braves saw themselves match up not only very well, but come through in clutch situations the entire series.
Friday’s opener pitted two pitchers capable of shutting down any given offense on any given night.
Such was the case for both Derek Lowe and Cliff Lee.
Lowe pitched 6 scoreless innings, giving up two hits, both in the top of the 7th with no outs, the Phillies threatened with Placido Polanco’s ground rule double moving Shane Victorino, who singled, to third.
In comes lefty Eric O’Flaherty from the bullpen, with no outs, to face Ryan Howard, Ben Francisco and Raul Ibanez. Three hitters who can change any pitchers fate with one swing of the bat, especially at Citizens Bank Park.
But the verdict for these three batters was all the same - strike out swinging.
Long before O’Flaherty was even starting to get loose, and Lowe was cruising through the Phillie lineup, the Braves broke through on Lee, amidst a masterful performance of 16 strikeouts, with 4 consecutive hits on on 5 pitches.
Alex Gonzalez, hitting in the two-hole with Lee on the hill, started things off with a two-out double.
A Chipper Jones single scored Gonzalez, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.
After McCann took a strike, he drilled a Lee offering for a double, scoring Chipper. On the very next pitch, Dan Uggla roped a double, scoring McCann and giving the Braves a 3-0 lead.
It was all Lowe needed, as the righty struck out 4 and walked one before handing the ball over after giving up the two hits.
The Braves added two more in the 9th, padding their lead as Gonzalez and Martin Prado produced run-scoring singles.
It was all Craig Kimbrel needed to shut the Phillies down in the bottom of the 9th and seal the series opener. Kimbrel, in a non-save situation, walked Jimmy Rollins leading off the inning, but struck out Howard to retire the side.
Saturday’s matchup was originally tabbed as Jair Jurrjens against Roy Oswalt. Instead, the Braves called up top pitching prospect Julio Teheran to start the middle game and give Jurrjens an extra day of rest. Roy Oswalt was placed on the 15-day DL with a back problem, giving Kyle Kendrick the start.
Once again, neither pitcher disappointed, but Kendrick’s day was just a little better than Teheran’s, who was the youngest Brave to make a start since Steve Avery in 1990.
Teheran was able to get through 4 2/3 innings against a tough Phillie lineup, giving up 4 hits and three runs, one coming victim of a leadoff walk in the 2nd inning and another a Howard solo shot before tacking on a third insurance run in the 5th with two outs before Teheran’s day was done.
Scott Linebrink closed out the Phillies in the 5th, and George Sherrill and Cory Gearrin combined to allow just two Phillie batters to reach over the final 3 innings.
Teheran struck out one and walked two, throwing 51 of his 86 pitches for strikes, but taking the loss before being sent back down to the minor leagues, but not after being told how well he did in front of a sold-out game.
Sunday’s Mother’s Day finale and ESPN Baseball Sunday Night Game of the Week saw two pitchers both teams have loved since they made their first start in Jurrjens and Cole Hamels.
And for the third consecutive game, the fans in Philadelphia got a pitchers duel.
After giving up just two home runs in the season, Gonzalez greeted Hamels in the top of the 2nd with another huge two-out hit, this time a two-run homer, giving the Braves a 2-0 lead.
The Phillies inched closer in the 3rd, but Freddie Freeman crushed a Hamels over the wall in right center for a 3-1 lead.
Jurrjens got into a bit of a jam in the bottom of the 6th with runners on first and third with one out, but got Wilson Valdez to ground into an inning-ending double-play.
The very next inning, Jurrjens gave up a one-out hit to former Brave Pete Orr, but O’Flaherty once again came up huge, forcing Rollins to ground into another inning-ending double-play.
The Braves added two more in the 8th on Eric Hinske’s pinch-hit homer, and went into the bottom of the 9th handing Kimbrel a 5-2 lead.
Kimbrel gave up a one-out single and then a walk, but struck out Shane Victorino and got Polanco to fly out, ending the inning and giving the Braves the series victory.
Up next for the Braves, winners of 7 of 8, are the Washington Nationals, kicking off an 8-game homestand beginning Tuesday.
The Nationals (16-18 and 4-4 in their last 8) are on the last leg of a 9-game road trip after dropping the series finale in Florida, 8-0.
The NL East foes have seen each other once so far this season, to open the season, as the Braves (20-16) took 2 of 3 in the nation’s capital.
Tuesday’s opener pits Tim Hudson against former Brave Jason Marquis.
This is Marquis’ first start against the team he broke through with in 2000, and the second for Hudson. In his first start of the year, Hudson was masterful, allowing one run on three hits through 7 innings as the Braves won, 11-2.
Tommy Hanson and John Lannan will look to grab a victory for their respective teams in Wednesday’s matchup.
This is Hanson’s first start of the year against the Nationals and Lannan’s second. Lannan earned the decision in the seasons second game, giving up one run on five hits through 5 innings as the Nationals won, 6-3.
Sunday’s finale will see rookie Brandon Beachy against Jordan Zimmerman. This will be Beachy’s second career start against the Nationals. Beachy took a no-decision in that start, going 5 innings and allowing 2 runs on 5 hits in a Washington 4-2 win.
It will be Zimmerman’s second start against the Braves on the season. The righty was on the opposite end of Hudson in the 11-2 Braves victory, giving up 3 runs (2 earned) on 4 hits through 6 innings before the Braves scored 8 in the 7th and 8th innings to pad the lead.
Keys to the series
- Do not look past this series into the weekend
- The Nationals are capable of hurting teams when they least expect it, so approaching these games just like they are any other is the best approach.
- Make the pitchers work
- As seen in Philly, even as Lee struck out 16, the Braves still made Lee work for every out he got and came away victories.
- Continue the strong May
- The Braves lost Saturday, but it was the first of the month, and are now 7-1 in May. With the 8-game homestand, the Braves can continue to add to that win column
Notes: Teheran pitched in front of 8,100 in his previous start before throwing his first MLB pitch in front of 45,519.. Prado’s hit streak ended Saturday, as he went 0-for-3.. Several Braves adorned pink in one form or another during Sunday’s finale.. Both Gonzalez and Hinske’s home runs Sunday were hit with a pink bat. Freeman’s with a black bat.. 16 K’s for Lee was his career-high.. Jon “Boog” Sciambi, former Braves broadcaster, called Sunday’s game for ESPN’s national radio feed.. The Braves are next on ESPN May 29 v Cincinnati.. Kimbrel earned save numer 8 in Sunday’s finale.