NEW YORK – Having swept aside the New York Mets, the Braves turn to more pressing matters: Three games against the first-place Phillies in their raucous bandbox of ballpark.
The Phillies have won seven in a row and 15 of 18 in September to overtake Atlanta and build a three-game lead in the National League East.
“We all knew that they were going to be involved [in the end],” Braves closer Billy Wagner said. “You would be stupid to think they were done. Even when they didn’t have their biggest guns, they were still very talented and tough to compete against.
“I mean, they’re probably the best lineup in baseball. They’re an American League lineup, and then you look at their pitching staff – they’re good.”
That said, the Braves were excited about facing the Phillies, even if Philly has lined up its top three starting pitchers – Cole Hamels on Monday, Roy Halladay on Tuesday, Roy Oswalt on Wednesday – for this series.
The Braves kept their rotation in order and counter with Jair Jurrjens on Monday, followed by rookie Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson in the series finale.
“We know what we’re getting ourselves into,” catcher Brian McCann said. “We’ve all been there. We’ve all played in front of the crowds, where they’re going to be cheering from pitch 1. So we’ve got to be ready, and I think we will be.”
It would take a Braves sweep for them to leave Philadelphia tied for the division lead, while losing two or three games might quash any realistic hopes of winning the division title with nine games to play after Wednesday.
The Braves have a 2-1/2-game lead in the NL wild-card race, and backup catcher David Ross said they discussed at Friday’s players-only meeting the importance of taking care of their own business, only focusing on what they could control.
“We always knew it was going to be a tight race,” Ross said, “and I think we’ve all – the Phillies, too — been looking forward to the times we were going to meet at the end of the season. I think everybody’s kind of had that in the back of their minds, like, we can’t wait to play each other.”
The teams meet again in a season-ending series in Atlanta Oct. 1-3.
Ross organized Friday’s meeting, and he, Wagner, Eric Hinske and Chipper Jones spoke during the gathering about what the Braves needed to do to finish strong and give themselves the best chance of making the playoffs.
“We’ve told guys, it’s going to be something you’ve never played in before,” Wagner said Sunday of the environment that awaits at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. “It’s a situation where the fans are going to be intense. The [Phillies] are going to be up for it, they’re rolling, they’re playing well.
“We have to be very focused and we have to be understanding situations. We can’t go out there and try to do things we’re not capable of doing. We have to play within our limits and not get caught up in the emotion of the series.”
Whatever happens in Philadelphia, the Braves have the wild card as a fallback.
“I mean, our ultimate goal is to win our division,” Wagner said. “But it doesn’t matter how you get in, it’s get in. We’ve put ourselves in position to get in the playoffs. We’ve had a couple of tough weeks and kind of put ourselves in a hole, but we’ve continued to battle and won enough games that it’s given us a chance to get to that playoff [berth], and it’s exciting.
“These kids are about to find out that this is what you play for. There’s nothing better than this.”