PHILADELPHIA – It was the Phillies who finished off the Braves last year, sweeping them on the last weekend of the season to end the Braves’ 10-20 slide and give St. Louis the wild-card berth on the final day of the season.
Still, the Braves’ satisfaction in taking two of three from the Phillies this weekend wasn’t derived from damaging Philadelphia’s already faint wild-card hopes. It came from bolstering their own postseason outlook by playing sound baseball, beating good pitchers and a hot team before sold-out crowds in a hostile environment.
Tim Hudson allowed just two hits and one unearned run in 7-1/3 innings of a 2-1 win Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, trimming the Braves’ “magic number” to two to clinch at least a wild-card berth. They also pulled to within 4-1/2 games of National League East leader Washington after the Nationals lost to Milwaukee soon after.
There are only nine games left in the regular season, but…
“We’ve still got some games left and we’re looking to make this thing [NL East race] as interesting as we can,” said Dan Uggla, whose third-inning sacrifice fly put the Braves ahead 2-0, after David Ross’ second-inning homer off Cliff Lee. “We ain’t going to quit anything. We’re still trying to win the division, that’s for sure. We just played good baseball. Good pitching, good defense, and got enough [runs] to go 4-2.”
The Braves’ completed a 4-2 trip that included series wins against a Marlins team just playing out the string and a Phillies team fighting desperately to stay alive after finally getting key players healthy. The Phillies reeled off 12 wins in 15 games and had an eight-game home winning streak after taking the series opener Friday.
But the Braves beat up Roy Halladay in an 8-2 win Saturday and won a pitchers’ duel Sunday behind Hudson (16-6), who had one walk and four strikeouts and didn’t face more than four batters in any inning. Lee (6-8) had 11 strikeouts and no walks in eight innings and lost for the first time in eight starts.
“It’s 4-1/2 [games] and they [Nationals] have got a tough schedule,” said Ross, whose homer was the first allowed by Lee in seven starts. “I think our eyes are still on the division. If that’s a lofty goal, that’s fine by me. But the key for us, if we get to playing good, we feel like we can play with anybody anytime.”
Eric O’Flaherty got the last two outs of the eighth and Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth for his 39th save for the Braves, who moved to a season-high 23 games over .500 (88-65).
Hudson had allowed four or more runs five times in his past eight starts before Sunday, including two games against the Phillies in which he’d gone 0-1 with a 10.61 ERA, allowing 11 runs, 15 hits and six walks in just 9-1/3 innings.
“It was a fun day for me,” Hudson said. “It’s the time of the year where you want to clean up your delivery and start making better pitches and start making crisper pitches in certain situations. Today was a day where I was able to go out there and I felt pretty confident with my off-speed and my sinker down in the zone. I’ll have one or two more starts before we hopefully get into the playoffs and they really start counting.”
Hudson has been prone to giving up multiple-run innings this season, and said those were the type of innings that can ruin a team in the postseason. He spent recent bullpen sessions ironing out his delivery, getting more consistent with his arm angle.
“He’s a pro,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I thought today was a great indication of what he can do.”
Said Ross: “Huddy’s that guy that when the lights are shining brightest, he brings his ‘A’ game. I like my chances with him on the mound against anybody anytime. I know he’s going to go out there and give me everything he has that day, and he’s going to fight and claw tooth and nail to try to win, to try to get their hitters out. I can go to battle with teammates like that any day of the week.”
Lee was charged with nine hits and two runs (one unearned) in eight innings. He has a 1.56 ERA in his past eight starts, with 65 strikeouts and four walks in 57-2/3 innings. The left-hander was 4-0 with a 1.02 ERA in his past five starts before Sunday, and 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA in his past four against the Braves.
“Today was a huge win,” Hudson said. “Capped off a really good road trip for us. These guys are still fighting to get in the playoffs, and we were able to come in and beat a great pitcher today.”
With only nine games left, the Phillies are five games behind St. Louis for the second wild-card spot. They would also have to pass surging Milwaukee and Los Angeles. The Braves finished 12-6 in their season series against the Phillies, including 7-2 in Philadelphia.
“It’s never anything personal,” Uggla said of beating the Phillies. “But they’re kind of in the way of where we’re trying to get, and it’s nice to come up here and take two out of three. Whether they make the playoffs or not, we’re not focused on trying to keep them out. We’re just trying to focus on going in the right direction. It just so happens that we put them farther back in the other wild-card hunt.”