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Saturday, July 9, 2011
Clash of the titans

By Joe Janish


It has been an up and down, mostly disappointing season for Raul Ibanez, but one thing has been consistent: He likes being home.

Historically streaky throughout his 15-year career, the hot streaks have not outdone the cold ones thus far in 2011 -- evidenced by his .239 average and sub-.700 OPS. At Citizens Bank Park, however, Ibanez is hitting .285 with an .819 OPS, including eight of his 11 home runs. Number eight could not have come at a better time -- a solo shot off of Scott Proctor in the 10th inning to lift the Phillies over the Braves in Friday night's contest.

The walk-off blast was his sixth hit and second homer in his past 15 at-bats, and the Phillies are hoping this is the beginning of one of his patented hot streaks. The preseason favorites in the National League East now have more wins (56) than anyone in the major leagues, but that has happened in spite of their sputtering offense. And suddenly, the second-place Braves are their most serious threat to the division crown -- if you hadn't noticed, Atlanta is second only to Philadelphia in wins (53, tied with Boston).

The Braves struggled out of the gate, heading into May with a 13-15 record. They have gradually improved since then -- the tortoise to the Phillies' hare -- yet, like the Phils, the Braves have struggled offensively. In fact, a quick look at the stats reveals that these two teams are similar in many ways. For example, the two teams are neck and neck atop the NL in ERA, have almost identical OPS marks, and are separated by only nine runs. As good as the Phillies' starting foursome has performed, Braves starters are just a tick below them; they're nearly equal in earned runs allowed and have held opposing batters to a lower batting average. Combine that with Atlanta's otherworldly bullpen, and the Braves' sudden offensive outburst (10 homers, 39 runs, and a .825 OPS so far in July), and one can understand why the Phillies need to be concerned.

Still, the Phillies remain on top, and can widen the gap slightly with another win or two this weekend. A five-game lead heading into the All-Star break would be comfortable but hardly secure considering the Braves' recent surge. Rookie Brandon Beachy stepped up on Friday night, matching Roy Halladay pitch for pitch through six innings in what might have been construed as a "big-game pitcher present" versus "big-game pitcher future." True to his billing, Halladay was one inning better, which in the end may have been the difference as the Phillies’ bullpen needed one less frame to cover. But it was a wake-up call of sorts, showing that while the Phils have the well-known names in their rotation, Atlanta's comparative "no-names" have the ability to hang in there with the elite.

With the Braves pitching nearly as well and starting to hit, the Phillies will need to step up their game to stay on top. It's hard to imagine the Phillies pitching much better so one would think that the bats are key to sustained success. Despite the return of Chase Utley in late May, the Phillies hit only .229 in June, averaging 3.7 runs per game. The various replacements for Jayson Werth have not produced, and table-setters Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco are not setting the table as frequently as in the past. If not for Shane Victorino's big first half, the Phillies might be looking up at the Braves right now. The lack of production in right field could be offset by Ryan Howard continuing his power production, Utley's return to form, and an Ibanez hot streak.

After the first month of the season, it appeared as though the Phillies would fulfill the preseason prophecies and run away with the NL East, while the Braves seemed underachievers. Heading into the final games before the All-Star break, however, these two teams are looking quite similar, and it appears as though they will be fighting the good fight throughout the second half. This weekend serves as a display of those similarities, and a preview of what's to come in the final two and half months of the season.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Chris Getz
The hand's faster than the eye: Chris Getz is safe!
Joe Janish is the founder of Mets Today, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and has thrown BP to Don Mattingly, caught Jim Bouton's knuckleball, and eaten a meal prepared by Rusty Staub. You can follow him on Twitter here.