Through six innings in their opening game of a 3-game set with the division-leading Atlanta Braves, Cliff Lee was as untouchable as he’s been all season. Much like his first start of the season, where Lee mowed through the vaunted Atlanta lineup like a scythe, it looked like the Phils would have a worry-free win spearheaded by the normally cool-headed Lee. The team had tagged Braves’ starter Paul Maholm for five runs, staking their Cy Young candidate a comfortable lead. However, the wheels came off for Lee in the 7th inning, in the most uncharacteristic of ways. After hitting Freddie Freeman and walking Chris Johnson, Philadelphia fan-favorite Dan Uggla came up with no men on and, after a dispute at the plate with Phils catcher Humberto Quintero, pumped a three-run homer well into the left-center grandstands to bring the Braves within two.
After recording the next out, another notorious Phillie-killer, Brian McCann sent a double to right where defensive substitution John Mayberry came up empty in a big spot. While this would have been a logical spot to take out Lee, Charlie Manuel decided to let Lee try to wriggle out of his mess. Unfortunately for Lee, and Manuel, a single by pinch-hitter Reed Johnson spelled the end of the night for Lee and another adventure with the unnerving Phillies bullpen.
Manuel turned the ball over to the hard-throwing J.C. Ramirez to deal with two very dangerous Atlanta hitters. First up, Andrelton Simmons scorched a line drive, right to Ben Revere for the first out. McCann, with zero fear of the soft-throwing Phils centerfielder, scored on the sacrifice fly, cutting the lead to 5-4. After walking Jason Heyward, putting the tying run in scoring position, Ramirez was given the tall task of facing Justin Upton to preserve the lead.
All signs pointed to Upton, a player that Philadelphia reportedly had interest in, being the final nail in the coffin for Lee’s start and sticking a dagger into the fans at Citizen’s Bank Park. However, unlike countless Phils relievers this season, Ramirez reared back and blew fastball, after fastball by the Braves slugger, punctuated by a 97 mph bead to the plate, leaving Upton in the dust and preserving the lead for the Phils.
While the rest of the game was not nearly as exciting as the climactic seventh inning, seeing Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon pitch stress-free innings to close out the Braves was a refreshing sight. Whether it was the Braves lineup deflating after their rally in the 7th gave them the lead, or the confidence in the back-end of the bullpen gained from seeing a 24-year-old fireballer sit down the Braves most dangerous power threat, the game seemed to settle down nicely for the home team, as they won the first game of their crucial ten-game home stand, seven of which are against the two teams ahead of them in the division.
At the plate, the Phillies did exactly what they did when one of their aces is on the mound. They jumped on fill-in starter Paul Maholm, scoring runs in the first three innings, capped off by a classic Ryan Howard tape-measure shot in the 3rd making the score 4-0. A major bright spot for the Phils in this one was the power production of Humberto Quintero, who was filling in for Carlos Ruiz. Quintero drove in three runs on the night, including two by way of a controversial home run in the second. The controversy surrounding the play involved a fan reaching out for the Quintero dinger, supposedly interfering with any attempt at a defensive stop. What made the play that much sweeter, besides the fact that it was upheld, was that a fan donning a Braves shirt-jersey was the unfortunate culprit, and the Comcast broadcast made sure to keep the focus on the fan, as he was apparently badgered by friends for the ill-timed gaffe.
Ben Revere continued to pepper the ball, going 2-4 on the evening, raising his average to .293. While his .331 on-base percentage is still nothing to write home about, the Phillies offense runs better when Revere is consistently making contact and pushing the envelope on the base path with his speed. With how much he struggled early in the season, one can only hope that Revere can continue to provide a spark for an offense that needs it in the worst way.
While it should normally be the case that the Phillies win games started by Cliff Lee and opposed by Paul Maholm, it was still a welcome sight to see the team maintain their fortitude in a tight spot and get the job done for Lee, whose masterful performances throughout the year has made the team look much better than they are at times.
Tomorrow, the Phils go back at it, looking to take the second game of their series with Atlanta. Kyle Kendrick will take the mound for Philadelphia, as he looks for a strong performance in his first game vs. the Braves this season. Kendrick, who has flashed both brilliance and blundering during his up-and-down campaign, has alternated wins and losses for the last six starts, culminating with a forgettable performance against the Dodgers in his last start. Hopefully, Kendrick can keep the pattern going (at least until tomorrow), and pitch well enough to give the Phillies a fighting chance. The Braves will counter with veteran Tim Hudson, who finally appears to be showing signs of fading. While Hudson has pitched fairly well against the Phillies over his career, sporting a 10-9 record and a 3.81 ERA, one can only expect the best from Hudson, the team’s ace, as his team’s lead in the NL East continues to fade.