Surging Braves to get more separation from Phillies this weekend

The Phillies hardly broke a sweat while sweeping the Braves to begin the season. Their expensive lineup beat up on a Braves pitching staff that didn’t get any major additions during the offseason. Young ace Aaron Nola and big-money veteran Jake Arrieta stymied the Braves, who left Philadelphia three games behind in the National League East.

It’s silly to make too much from one series, but that one fit neatly into the storyline that said the Phillies spent their way past the Braves over the winter. It held up until this week, when the Braves took the East lead from the Phillies for the first time. The Braves can poke more holes in that narrative by winning the series against the Phillies this weekend at SunTrust Park.

I think the Braves will do it. It’s not that the Phillies (38-30) are bad. They’ve won five of nine games since they were swept at the Dodgers. It’s that the Braves (40-29) are better. The Braves have won seven games in a row and 10 of 12 to surge from two games behind the Phillies to 1-1/2 games in front.

The Braves are 22-10 since they were swept at the Dodgers, who are the only team in the NL with a better record. The Braves swept the four-game series against the Pirates with lots of hitting and just enough pitching. It’s a formula that works for the Braves because they are deep in hitters.

“This is the baseball we expect to play,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said after Thursday’s series finale. “What we’ve been doing the last two, three, four weeks is what I think all of us envisioned. We knew when we put it all together that we were going to be really, really good.”

The Braves scored 69 runs over their past 10 games. It came against the Tigers, Marlins and Pirates. Those teams don’t have much pitching, but the Braves have done damage against better staffs. Philadelphia’s pitching is nothing special.

The Phillies’ rotation is lackluster. Their bullpen is banged up. The Braves should have plenty of changes to score runs. They won’t send out their best starter, rookie Mike Soroka, and the bullpen can be an adventure. But it’s not clear the Phillies can take advantage.

That high-priced Philadelphia lineup has produced like a mid-pack group. Entering Thursday the Phillies ranked seventh among NL teams in runs scored, 11th in batting, ninth in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. Drawing walks is the only thing the Phillies have been good at, so Braves pitchers can be effective if they avoid free passes.

Even if they don’t, the Phillies will have to keep pace. The Braves’ NL offensive rankings entering Thursday: fifth in runs, third in average, third in OBP, and sixth in slugging. The Braves won the East last year on the strength of their lineup, and it might be even better this season.

Ronald Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Freeman are bashing at the top of the order. Austin Riley and a resurgent Ozzie Albies are dangerous at the bottom. Matt Joyce and Charlie Culberson have been great off the bench.

“It’s fun watching opposing managers try to get through our lineup,” Freeman said.

That’s the way it was supposed to be for the Phillies, too, after they added four accomplished hitters for this season. They took on payroll to acquire Jean Segura and sent away their best prospect to get J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies signed Bryce Harper for $330 million over 13 years and Andrew McCutchen for $50 million over three.

Segura, Realmuto and Harper have been fine at the plate. That’s below expectations. McCutchen was good before he suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. The Phillies have been saved by good production from young hitters Scott Kingery and Rhys Hoskins and veteran outfielder Jay Bruce, who signed the day McCutchen went down.

The Phillies don’t have the pitching to overcome below-average offense. Braves starters have been OK and their relievers subpar. Now consider that, entering Thursday, Braves starters were considerably better than Philadelphia’s (4.2 Wins Above Replacement vs. 2.7 WAR), and their relievers weren’t much worse (-0.2 WAR vs. 0.1 WAR).

Philadelphia’s scheduled starter for Friday, Nick Pivetta, has been better lately, but spent a month in Triple-A trying to figure things out. Nola, slotted for Saturday, has improved results after a slow start to the season but only occasionally shows his 2018 All-Star form. Jerad Eickhoff lost his rotation spot after another poor outing Tuesday, leaving Sunday’s Phillies starter TBD. It could be Arrieta, who has slipped.

Certainly, the Braves also have question marks among their weekend starters. Max Fried was pretty good at Miami last time out after he wasn’t in the two starts before that. Sean Newcomb began the season as a starter, was demoted to the bullpen, and now is set to take Kevin Gausman’s turn Saturday. Mike Foltynewicz’s start Sunday could go either way, but it’s hard to expect consistency from him with his slider not working.

Maybe Phillies hitters find traction against those three and do some damage against the Braves bullpen. If so, the Braves are equipped to win shootouts against the Phillies this weekend the same way they did against the Pirates during the week. That’s why this Braves-Phillies series should be different than the one to begin the season.