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
, 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
. 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

The Braves, too, made a big trade to bolster their bullpen, picking up
Steve Reed and Steve Karsay from the Indians for John
. 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
, 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.

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