With a favorable schedule over the next two weeks, the Philadelphia Phillies have an opportunity to close in on their record-tying third straight NL East title.
Lee will try to rebound from his first loss in nearly two months in Friday night’s opener of a four-game road set with the Houston Astros.
Philadelphia (77-54) holds an 8 1/2-game edge over Atlanta and Florida in the division and will play its next 14 contests against sub-.500 teams. After that, the Phillies start a 10-game road trip that begins with three against the Braves on Sept. 18-20 and four versus the Marlins on Sept. 22-24.
Getting its hitters back on track could help Philadelphia make those showdowns virtually irrelevant.
The Phillies, who also won three straight division championships from 1976-78, have batted .232 in their last nine games.
However, they have won five times in that span thanks to a run of strong pitching.
Since Aug. 11, Philadelphia has a major league-leading 2.60 ERA, and Pedro Martinez(notes) improved that mark by outdueling reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum(notes) in Thursday night’s 2-1 victory over visiting San Francisco. The Phillies had four hits, but Jayson Werth(notes) hit a solo homer and Ryan Howard(notes) added an RBI double.
The acquisition of Lee (5-1, 1.80 ERA) from Cleveland is perhaps the biggest reason for the Phillies’ recent run of strong pitching. The left-hander, acquired in a six-player deal July 29, won his first five starts while posting a 0.68 ERA.
That dominance and an eight-start winning streak going back to July 16 was snapped Tuesday night against Atlanta as he gave up six runs and 10 hits over five innings in a 9-1 defeat.
“He had an off night,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “The way he’s been pitching you figure sooner or later he’s going to have a tough night.”
Lee might have an easier time with Houston (63-70), which batted .212 while getting shut out three times in going 2-7 on its recently completed nine-game road trip. The Astros were limited to five hits in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
“Pretty hard to win like that,” Astros manager Cecil Cooper told the team’s official Web site. “We just couldn’t generate offense, at least consistent offense, and you’ve got to have consistent offense in order to have a chance to win.”
Houston, however, has won six of its last nine at home and is 35-30 there compared to its 28-40 road mark.
The Astros will also start left-hander Wandy Rodriguez(notes) (12-9, 2.93), who has held opponents to one run or fewer in 10 of his last 13 starts. His previous outing Sunday at Arizona was not one of those as he allowed four runs over six-plus innings for his second loss in as many outings
Rodriguez is 7-3 with a 2.54 ERA since June 21, but he has received a combined one run of support in those three defeats. He also got no runs in his only start against the Phillies, a loss on Sept. 17, 2006.
Philadelphia won four of seven matchups with Houston last season and split its four games at Minute Maid Park.
The teams will also play four games at Citizens Bank Park from Sept. 28-Oct. 1.