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September 11, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Showdown Time

by Joe Sheehan

The good races in the National League, combined with the new 'n improved unbalanced schedule, mean that there will be big games being played just about every day for the rest of the season. The stretch begins tonight in Atlanta, where the Phillies will try and make up for six weeks of mediocre baseball in three days.

The Phils open the series just 3 1/2 games behind the Braves, thanks in no small part to the unimpressive baseball the boys in Atlanta have played. Neither team has done much since the All-Star break, the Braves' 29-26 record merely less bad than the Phils' 25-31 mark, enabling them to stake out a small lead.

While both teams have continued to get good pitching--the Braves lead the NL in ERA since the break, with the Phillies seventh--their offenses have been equally unimpressive. The Phillies have been essentially league average since midseason, .262/.326/.423 and 4.5 runs per game, while the Braves haven't even been that good: a .253/.312/.408 performance, good for just 4.2 runs per game. That's an OBP and SLG in the lower quartile of NL teams; even the addition of Marcus Giles to the lineup (.297/.360/.465) hasn't been enough to offset the sucking holes on the three corners not occupied by Chipper Jones.

Each team has had to tinker with its bullpen over the past few weeks. The Phillies dealt for two middle relievers, Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook, only to watch them implode on arrival. Combined with the collapse of Rheal Cormier, Larry Bowa had to shovel more, and more important, innings to unheralded surprises like Cliff Politte and Jose Santiago. It worked in August, and with Cook, Wendell, and Cormier seemingly back to form--no runs allowed in nine September innings, combined--the Phillies' pen now looks like a source of considerable strength.

The Braves, too, made a big trade to bolster their bullpen, picking up Steve Reed and Steve Karsay from the Indians for John Rocker. They've been ridden hard since their arrival, and enabled the Braves to get Kerry Ligtenberg and John Smoltz healthy. After a few months of interchangeable roles, the Braves appear to have settled on Smoltz as their closer--he's gotten the team's last six saves--with Karsay and Mike Remlinger in front of him. That's as good an arrangement as this team has had in a number of years.

With the bullpens essentially even, and neither offense reminding anyone of the 1995 Indians, the big point of differentiation is the rotations. The Phillies have gotten surprisingly good work from rookies Nelson Figueroa, Brandon Duckworth, and Dave Coggin, and those three guys may be the ones most responsible for this series having any meaning whatsoever for the Phillies. But they've each been less effective as the year has worn on, with Coggin, in particular, getting hammered of late. Here are their ERAs by month:


            June     July     August     September
Coggin      9.64     2.27       4.11           INF
Figueroa    1.23     2.97       5.29          4.50
Duckworth     --       --       3.34          3.65

Duckworth and Coggin start games two and three of this series against two guys named Maddux and Glavine. They provided the Phillies quite a boost when Randy Wolf and Bruce Chen lost their rotation spots, but this may be as far as they can take the team.

The Phillies have been a great story this season, and they deserve a ton of credit for making a series this deep into the year important. But this week is probably where it ends, as their young rotation meets its match in one of the best #1/#1A combinations in baseball history.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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