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Five teams to watch in the 2nd half

Atlanta catcher Brian McCann (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

With the second half of the 2011 season underway yesterday, division races, Wild Card races and the push for the best record in baseball begin to heat up. With just under 100 games out of the way, five teams jump out as the favorites to make the playoffs and do some serious damage in their respective leagues.

There really are no new teams in this year’s hunt. The Reds have stumbled in the first half of the season but are still four games out of first place in the NL Central. The Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants are riding their pitching to the best two records in the league.

In the American League, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays are back at their three-way fight for the division and Wild Card while the Central and West are up in the air for two teams each: Cleveland/Detroit and Texas/Los Angeles.

The Wild Cards for each league will also present some interesting match-ups. Atlanta will have to battle with the NL Central if they can’t overcome Philadelphia and the Yanks/Sox/Rays may have some competition.

So with that, here are five teams to watch. This is not a Top 5 post but five teams who could make some serious noise in the second half of the regular season.

Read more of this post


Doc to start All-Star Game

Roy Halladay will be the NL starter in the All-Star game on Tuesday, said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Giants manager Bruce Bochy said there was no better pitcher than Roy Halladay to start for his NL squad in this year’s Mid Summer Classic.

That is why Bochy decided Doc will give the NL All Stars two innings of work in tomorrow night’s game in Arizona as his starting pitcher. Halladay was Charlie Manuel’s starter last season in the All-Star Game.

Earlier in the week, Phillies pitching coach made a comment about the heavy workload Halladay has already taken this season, being the league leader in innings pitched once again. He hinted at hoping Halladay would not pitch, and instead, Bochy go with Braves ace Jair Jurrjens. Jurrjens has a NL low 1.87 ERA to go with his NL high 12-3 record.

Dubee’s main concern was that it would be a health issue but both Halladay and Dubee agreed that two innings wouldn’t hurt the two-time Cy Young award winner, who is on pace for a third award.

“We both agree it’s not a health concern,” Halladay said. “It’s just making sure I’m fresh for the second half. As soon as things are over, we’ll assess how things went here and where to go from there. As long as we handle it on the back end, it’s not a health concern.”

More news after the jump… Read more of this post

Pregame Notes July 5, 2011

VICTORINO BACK TO PHILLY — Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino was sent back to Philadelphia to have his right thumb examined. Victorino injured the thumb in Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays when his cleats caught the turf and he fell awkwardly on his hand.

BOCHY DISCUSSES ASG STARTER — On MLB Network Radio, NL Manager Bruce Bochy said that either Atlanta starter Jair Jurrjens or Roy Halladay will start the All-Star Game. The tweet was RTed by Braves beat writer David O’Brien.

MAYBERRY CALLED UP — As expected, John Mayberry was called up to take the roster spot vacated by Vance Worley. Mayberry may get the start in CF tonight with Victorino back in Philadelphia.

Early bombs set tone for Braves

The Braves' Martin Prado leads off the bottom of the 1st with a solo homer to left. (AP Photo/Paul Abell)

Two poorly-placed, low-velocity sinkers were turned into back-to-back lead off homers for the Braves. That set the pace for Atlanta, who beat the Phillies on a night the Negro Leagues were honored, 5-3.

Martin Prado sent Blanton’s first sinker in the mid-80’s over the left field fence to give the Braves a quick 1-0 lead. The next batter, Nate McLouth, took Blanton to dead center for a 2-0 lead.

Blanton, whose velocity is still down after coming off an injury to his right elbow, lasted only five innings for the second straight time. His replacements, J.C. Romero and Kyle Kendrick, did not do so well.

Romero and Kendrick were roughed up for three runs in the 6th off three hits and two walks. That poor inning gave the Braves a 5-1 lead, which ultimately killed the Phillies hopes of getting back in the game.

They followed up Blanton’s two-run effort on five hits, a walk and five strike outs. Though his location was good, his velocity was down and that ultimately hurt him.

With these two starts, people are starting to worry whether or not Blanton is fully healthy. His fastball topped out at 88 MPH, about 2-3 down from his usual average. Read more of this post

Braves power past Phils

The frustration could be felt throughout the entire stadium.

It started with Cole Hamels, then drifted to the offense, found its way to the bull pen and left the fans feeling hung out to dry. Hamels couldn’t catch any breaks and the Braves used three homers to take the rubber match, 5-2, and beat the Phils Sunday night.

Hamels was good despite the two mistakes he left over the plate. The first was from Alex Gonzalez, who hit a two-run homer off Hamels in the 2nd. But the lefty appeared to shake it off, mowing through Atlanta’s line up until he was taken yard again, this time by Freddie Freeman in the 5th.

Hamels’ night, though it will be, should not be defined by those two bad pitches. He finished after seven innings, allowing three runs on five hits, one walk and striking out nine. Read more of this post

The “Big Three” Is the Story this Series

By John Russo

Phils lefty Cole Hamels strikes out a career-high 13 batters in the Phils 2-1 win over Florida on Sept. 14. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Charlie Manuel knows what he did just put his team in the best position to win. So does Bobby Cox, who knows what it’s like to have a “Big Three” on his roster.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cox said before Monday’s game. “Oswalt’s been dynamite ever since he got over here. It’s a good situation for him for a change. And just looking at Hamels right now. There’s nothing but zeroes in runs just about. He’s kind of secretly in that Cy Young mix. Halladay is unbelievable. We used to play him in the spring and you can see it.”

The Phillies lined up their rotation for this series, pitching Cole Hamels in last night’s 3-1 win. Hamels allowed a run in eight strong innings of work while striking out six.

Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, the other two pieces to the big three, will pitch tonight and tomorrow respectively. Halladay dominated the Braves in his previous two starts this season, throwing a five-hit complete game shut out in April and a five-hit, one-run complete game in the beginning of July.

Ace Roy Halladay has been a blessing for the Phillies this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Cox is throwing Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson against the Phils this series. With Jair Jurrjens’ injury yesterday that forced him to pitch Brandon Beachy, there were questions on whether Cox should have moved everyone up a start to pitch his ace, Tim Hudson, against Oswalt.

“No, we got confidence in our guys running out there,” Cox said. “Minor is a very good pitcher and Tommy Hanson is pretty dominating at times too so we like our chances with good young pitchers.”

In today’s match up. Halladay will be going for his 20th win on the season. If (and assuming when) he gets that next win, he will be the first Phillies pitcher to do so since 1982 when Steve Carlton went 23-11.

Hamels, Halladay, and Oswalt all have ERAs under 3.00, another remarkable feat. Hamels and Oswalts ERAs have been on a steady decline the past two months while Doc’s was always low.

RHP Roy Oswalt dominates the Dodgers on Aug. 10. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Since Oswalt’s first start on July 30, he is 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA and 61 strike outs in 11 starts. Also since that date, Hamels is 5-3 with a 1.91 ERA and 79 strike outs in 10 starts and Halladay is 7-2 with a 3.25 ERA and 61 strike outs in nine starts.

Manuel doesn’t feel there is one “ace” on the staff.

“Whoever pitches good on that night,” Manuel said when asked who he considers the staff ace after Monday’s 3-1 win. “We got some good pitchers and we don’t like to say which ones the ace. I like all three of them – our top ones – and I think (Joe) Blanton and (Kyle) Kendrick have done a good job for us. I like the fact that they do pitch good games at times.”

Cox has had a big three before in his career. From 1993-2002, he had three possible future Hall of Famers in the rotation for him: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The Braves won their division all nine years that trio was together.

Will this Phillies “Big Three” bring them a World Series like it did Cox in 1995? We sure hope so.

Hamels is Electric

By John Russo

PHILADELPHIA — Perhaps the playoffs already started for the Phillies.

With rally towels waving and the crowd excited like it’s October, the Phils took the first of their critical three-game series with the Atlanta Braves, 3-1, on Monday night behind eight strong innings from starting pitcher Cole Hamels.

The win expanded the Phillies’ lead in the NL East to four games over Atlanta. Their magic number is now eight games to wrap up a fourth straight National League East title, a feat which remarkably could come as early as this weekend.

“For us it’s just another game, another stepping stone,” said Hamels, who hasn’t lost since August 19. “I think if we’re able to go out there and play one game at a time and go after them and try and try to get the job done then we’re able to play the baseball we expect ourselves to and come away with wins.”

Hamels was efficient for the Phils, allowing only one run on six hits and a walk and striking out six. Brad Lidge struck out two in a 1-2-3 ninth for his 24th save on the season.

“Hamels has been really good,” said manager Charlie Manuel. “But in order to win a lot of games these days that’s what pitchers got to be like.”

In his last five starts, Hamels has allowed only two runs in 36 2/3 innings pitched, an ERA of 0.49.

Hamels also got three double plays from his defense, the first coming with a runner on first and third with one out in the second. That double play was key because Atlanta already had a run on the board and was set to do more damage.

“I felt like he had good command,” said Manuel. “They turned three double plays and those ground balls were big for him.”

The Phillies only needed five more hits – and some help from the Braves defense – to give Hamels the support he would need. Carlos Ruiz knocked in a run with a double in the second and Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez plated a pair of runs on groundouts in the fifth.

Brandon Beachy, making an emergency start in place of injured pitcher Jair Jurrjens, did well enough to keep the Braves in the game. Making his major-league debut, he lasted 4 1/3 innings while allowing three runs, one earned, on six hits, three walks, and a strikeout.

Shane Victorino wound up on third on a ball that Braves right fielder Jason Heyward misplayed to start the fifth and scored on a groundout by Polanco to make it a 2-1 game. Ibanez drove in Chase Utley with a fielder’s choice grounder to make it a 3-1 game later in the inning, more than enough for Hamels.

Martin Prado almost tied up the game in the sixth inning. With a man on and one out and the Phillies up 3-1, Prado’s laser went just left of the foul pole in left.

It would have been the first home run allowed by Cole Hamels since August 24, but like most everything else on this night, the flight of the ball went the Phillies’ way.

Hamels, the ace of the 2008 World Series champions, admitted  having two pitchers like Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt pitching in the same staff as him has taken a lot of weight off his shoulders this year.

“I think it puts you where you’re not as stressed, you know you don’t have to be, ‘that guy,’ you know, you don’t have to carry the whole team on your back,” Hamels said. “I think when you have one big-time pitcher on a team, guys kind of look at him to be that guy that’s always going to win, always get them out of the rut, always have that huge game and that puts a little bit more pressure on guys.”

Series Preview: Braves

PHI: 89-61, 1st in NL East
ATL: 86-64, 2nd in NL East
Where: Citizens Bank Park (Philly, PA)
Discussion: Liberty Bell Sports

Probable pitchers
Mon: Cole Hamels (11-10, 3.01) vs. Brandon Beachy (0-0, 0.00)
Tue: Roy Halladay (19-10, 2.49) vs. Mike Minor (3-1, 5.84)
Wed: Roy Oswalt (13-13, 2.90) vs. Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.62)

Mon: 7:05; CSN
Tue: 7:05; CSN
Wed: 7:05; CSN
Radio: 1020 AM

Player to Watch – Jason Heyward: Heyward is enjoying a nice rookie season. The outfielder is hitting .286 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs on the season for the Braves. There was a lot of pressure on Heyward as a rookie.  He has basically handed the starting right-fielder job right in spring training.  As a rookie, he has struck out a ton which will work in the favor if the Phils’ Big Three, who feast on young hitters.  Heyward has calmed down a bit lately on the strikeout totals.  He has only recorded four strikeouts in his last 31 at-bats.  He is going to have to be patient if he wants to solve the Phils’ Big Three.  Heyward is a guy that has a tremendous amount of power to all fields and the Phillies pitchers will have to selectively choose their pitches to this youngster.

Series overview: This is the biggest series of the season for both Philadelphia and Atlanta. Atlanta will need to win the series to gain some sort of ground. If the Phils can manage two wins, they position themselves for a fourth-straight division win.

The Phillies are coming off a sweep of the Washington Nationals.  The Braves just finished a sweep of the New York Mets.

The pitching matchups in this series seem very one-sided with the Phillies having a huge upperhand.  This series is a chance for the Phillies to put the division out of reach and to stay on the winning track heading down the stretch.

Tonight’s contest features arguably one of the hottest pitchers in baseball Cole Hamels.  Hamels is 4-0 with 0.60 ERA in his last five starts.  In three of those starts, he didn’t give up a single run.  The Braves had a last minute pitching change today.  Jair Jurrjens was slated to start but will be sidelined due to a knee injury.  Rookie right-hander Brandon Beachy will start in place of Jurrjens.  Beachy was a combined 5-1 with a 1.73 ERA in the minor leagues this season.

Tuesday’s game pits Roy Halladay against rookie starter Mike Minor.  Halladay has struggled a bit as of late.  Halladay has given up a combined 18 runs in his last two starts.  However he still was able to record victories in both starts, which speaks volumes of where the offense is lately.  Minor on the other hand has struggled since being called up.  He is 3-1 but his 5.84 ERA is very troublesome for the Braves.  His record is a product of a good offensive team.  The Phillies should be able to give Halladay enough run support in this contest.

In the series finale, Roy Oswalt will take on Tommy Hanson.  Oswalt has been absolutely superb as of late.  In his last five starts, he is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA.  Since coming over to the Phillies Oswalt has really turned his season around.  He has only suffered one loss in a Phillies uniform.  Hanson is a young pitcher that the Braves are banking on being a future ace.  But Hanson is not pitching too bad lately.  In his last five starts he has a 2-2 record with a 2.80 ERA.  He hasn’t gotten lit up too much but just hasn’t been able to notch many victories.

Doc, Dobbs Earn Phils A Huge Win

All Roy Halladay is asking for each start is a little offense. His 2.33 ERA is letting you know that if you score at least three runs, he’ll likely get you a W. Halladay only needed 93 pitches for his seventh complete game of the season as the Phillies won 3-1 to cut their deficit in the standings to four games.

Greg Dobbs was the real hero though. His two-run shot in the sixth erased the Braves’ 1-0 lead they earned in the first with a solo home run by Chipper Jones. The homer highlighted Dobbs’ two-hit game. Juan Castro drove in Jayson Werth with two outs in the eighth as an insurance run before Halladay sat down the Braves in order off of six pitches in the ninth.

Halladay gave up only five hits and a walk in the win while striking out seven. Derek Lowe’s efforts aren’t that to be forgotten. He allowed only two runs in seven strong innings of work where he allowed six hits and a walk while striking out six. Lowe basically got a taste of what it’s like to not get any support.

The Phillies were coming off of a tough series loss to a team as low as Pittsburgh as they saw themselves drop in the standings. With this win over Atlanta, they sit four games back with the ability to gain even more ground. Cole Hamels being on the mound tomorrow against Atlanta’s weakest pitcher of the series, Jair Jurjjens, is going to help them tremendously.

HR: Dobbs (2).

WP: Halladay (10-7). LP: Lowe  (9-7).


Swept Again

Comcast Sportsnet had a great poll up but they missed one option. The question: what is the cause of the Phillies’ struggles? A. bull pen inconsistency; B. Cole Hamels’ struggles; C. Raul Ibanez’s absence; D. Jimmy Rollins’ struggles. I would love to add: E. All of the above.

The Phillies are 4-14 in their last 18 games. In those last 18, the bull pen has blown countless saves and pitched absolutely terrible. In games when the Phillies would be trailing only a run or two, the bull pen would surrender multiple runs to put the game out of reach. A part of this is due to the starters not going at least seven innings and that is completely draining the bull pen.

Ryan Madson has been the most dreadful of relievers. Since June 16, he’s given up nine runs in seven appearances (6 2/3 innings). He has blown three saves. Madson isn’t the only pitcher struggling as Hamels, who hasn’t won a game since June 4, has been terrible. In his last five starts, he’s 0-3, averaging less than six innings a start. He’s given up 19 runs on 44 hits and 8 walks in 27 2/3 IP. Those are not numbers you want from your ace.

After being benched for four games, Rollins came back to go hitless in the first two games of the Braves series until Thursday night when he had two hits, snapping an 0-28 drought.

Tuesday: In a seesaw battle, the Phillies blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth and gave up a walk off hit in the 10th. Martin Prado capped his 4-5, four RBI game with the winning hit as the Braves won 5-4.

Wednesday: Jair Jurrjens took a no hitter into the seventh as the Braves dominated the Phillies 11-1.

Thursday: After tying the game up at two in the sixth, the Braves scored three in the eighth off Madson to win 5-2. JA Happ went seven strong, giving up two runs on seven hits and two walks and striking out five.

Series MVP’s:
ATL: Martin Prado: 7-12, 4 runs, 2 doubles, HR, 6 RBI
ATL: Matt Diaz: 7-11, 4 runs, double, HR, 3 RBI, SB

Next Series: New York Mets (39-39; 17-22 on road) @ Philadelphia Phillies (39-37; 13-22 at home)

We all know how big the Mets series is. It’s the start of their final 10 game home stand going into the All Star Break. The Mets lead the series 4-3 but the Phillies have won the previous two. The Phillies can win the series still but at this rate, I am afraid of a sweep or series loss. Luckily Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez have hit some rough patches. I have nothing more to say.

Pitching Probables:
7/3: Hernandez, L (5-3, 4.04), Lopez, Ro (0-0, -.–)
7/4: Nieve (3-1, 2.25), Moyer (6-6, 6.05)
7/5: Santana, J (9-6, 3.34), Blanton (4-4, 5.08)