Just two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Phillies looked like they would cruise to a fourth straight NL East title.
A prolonged slump by the two-time defending NL champions and a sudden surge by the Atlanta Braves has changed that.
The Phillies hope to avoid falling out of first place for the first time in a month Monday afternoon when they open a three-game series against a Braves team trying to move into the top spot.
Philadelphia (28-21) had the largest division lead of any team May 17 with five-game advantages over Florida and Washington. New York was six games out, while last-place Atlanta was 6 1/2 back.
The Braves (28-22) have won 10 of 12 since to pull within one-half game of first place, a position they haven’t been in this late in the season since winning the East in 2005.
“We still have 100-plus games to go,” said Chipper Jones(notes), who had a tiebreaking RBI single in the eighth inning of Sunday’s 5-2 win over Pittsburgh. “We’re playing well. (The Phillies) are struggling a little bit. Let’s just go out and play them. Have fun. Do the same things we’ve been doing for the last month. It’s not do or die.”
While the Braves, a major league-best 15-4 since May 10, are enjoying their run, things might seem a bit more urgent for Philadelphia.
With a 1-0 loss to Florida on Sunday, the Phillies were shut out for the fifth time in eight games. Philadelphia, batting .186 in that span, hasn’t homered in a season-high 54 innings and has six extra-base hits in the last six games.
“We’ve never used excuses and we’re not going to start now,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “We’ll come out of it at some point. It might be tomorrow or it might be the next day, but this team will get back to where we were.”
Howard is 4 for 27 (.148) with nine strikeouts and one RBI in the last eight games, while Utley is 4 for 30 (.133) with one RBI.
“I have no idea why this is happening,” Howard said.
After being tagged for a career-worst eight runs in 1 2-3 innings of a 10-9 win over Cincinnati on May 20, Hanson gave up two runs, four hits and five walks in six innings of a 7-3 victory over Florida on Wednesday.
The Braves have won seven of Hanson’s last nine starts, including his outing against the Phillies on April 20, when the right-hander gave up two runs and six hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 4-3, 10-inning victory.
Blanton allowed five runs, six hits and four walks in 5 1-3 innings of Wednesday’s 5-0 loss to the Mets, as he again fell apart after the fifth inning. The right-hander gave up three runs in the sixth and has a 19.29 ERA after the fifth compared to a 1.80 ERA through the first five innings.
In a 4-1 loss to the Braves on May 8, Blanton pitched five innings of one-hit ball before giving up three runs and four hits in the sixth.