NL Wild Card Race: Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies

With the Philadelphia Phillies (100-60) securing the NL East pennant and home field advantage for the playoffs, two items remain on their checklist before the start of the 2011 MLB Playoffs; 1). Match or beat the all-time Phillies win total at 101 games (set in 1976 and again in 1977) and, 2). Hand the Atlanta Braves their 4th straight loss and possibly a major setback in the NL Wild Card Race, where the Braves sit precariously today at just one game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

After appearing certain to stroll into the playoffs on a Wild Card bid with an 8 1/2 game lead on the Cardinals heading into September, everything has changed for the worse for Atlanta, who’ve watched their bats completely dry up while going 8-16 for the month, and posting a dismal .183 average over their current 3-game losing spell. The going may get even tougher tonight, with an unfavorable match-up on the mound, so Atlanta had best do some praying that Philadelphia reverts back to its 2-8 form in the past 10 games (though they’ve won 2 straight), and doesn’t eye the chase for their franchise record win total.

Tonight Derek Lowe (9-16, 4.92 ERA) gets one last shot to prove that he still has something left in the tank this season, despite all his detractors. Lowe has been nothing shy of plain awful down the stretch this season, dropping 4 straight decisions while posting an 8.24 ERA in September. To make matters even worse, Lowe has lost 6 of his last 8 starts against the Phillies, getting just 1.7 runs of support while posting a pedestrian 4.59 ERA. With the way the Atlanta bats have been swinging, it’s not looking good for any more production to come Lowe’s way this evening either.

In opposition of the wary Braves and their veteran starter is Roy Oswalt (8-10, 3.86 ERA) who looks to bounce back himself from a tough outing against the Nationals last week where he gave up 6 runs in 7 2/3 innings of work. While Oswalt has been fairly sporadic over the last month, he’s pitched well against Atlanta this season, giving up just 3 earned runs in 13 innings of work and getting a no decision on 7 innings pitched with 2 runs allowed in a 3-2 win over Atlanta on September 7th. Though the focus is most certainly on the playoffs for the Phillies, for Oswalt it’s also for finishing the season strong, and heading into the playoffs with plenty of confidence against the Braves, who could end up being Philadelphia’s first round opponent ahead.

Betting Lines for Philadelphia vs. Atlanta: sportsbook has interesting odds on tonight’s game, giving Derek Lowe and the Braves -109 odds to win on the money line, while the Philadelphia Phillies just get a slight favorite to win at -111 odds posted. The Braves will get 1.5 runs at -170, while the Phillies give up 1.5 runs at +150. With both pitchers coming off rough outings, and Lowe particularly being terrible lately, it’s not a shock to see the over/under at 8 runs today, even with the lack of offense the Braves have put up in their past 5 games (averaging 2 runs per outing, going 1-4).

Our Pick to Win:

Atlanta is in an absolute must-win situation at home tonight. Knowing that the Braves cannot afford another blow-up by Derek Lowe, expect manager Fredi Gonzalez to keep him on a short leash, and turn to the bullpen early if needed. While Philadelphia has rested up for the postseason, and all of their starters have lost games in the past 10 days, I expect Roy Oswalt to buck the trend, give the Phillies their third straight win tonight, and tie the franchise record for wins as they hand a defeat to the Braves 4-3.

Players to Watch, Atlanta:

Alex Gonzalez, SS – Luckily for the Braves, they got Gonzalez back in the line-up last night against the Phillies, and although they didn’t win, Gonzalez immediately got back to his hot streak going 1-for-3 with an RBI double. Hitting .367 for September, he’s the only everyday player in the lineup hitting over .300 in the past week, or the past month.

Chipper Jones, 3B – The veteran Jones has been trying to motivate his team during their rough spell, hitting .294 in September with 4 homers and 10 RBIs, and has been playing through soreness as of late. Hopefully he can build on his 2-for-4 night last night with a solo shot, and continue his strong performance against Phillies pitching this year (batting .319).

Players to Watch, Philadelphia:

Shane Victorino, CF – While Victorino hasn’t been all that impressive in September (batting .185), he’s hit very well at Turner Field with a .542 average over his last six games there. On the season he’s hitting .378 against Braves pitching, and will look to improve on his .212 lifetime mark against Derek Lowe tonight.

Hunter Pence, RF – Pence came off a 3-game absence over the weekend, and hit 4-for-9 in the Phillies’ past two victories. Hitting .309 for September and .400 against Braves pitching, look for Pence’s production to be a good gauge of whether the Phillies win or lose tonight.

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