Phillies-Braves Preview

The Associated Press

One reason the Atlanta Braves blew a big wild-card lead late last season was their inability to beat the Philadelphia Phillies.

Though the Phillies won't be running away with the NL East again this year, they're again hurting Atlanta's playoff hopes.

A slumping offense continues to plague the Braves, just as it did last September, and they face one of baseball's top pitchers from August on Sunday when Cole Hamels tries to lead Philadelphia to its first three-game road sweep of 2012.

Atlanta (74-59) holds a 9-5 lead in this season series, which ends Sept. 21-23 in Philadelphia, but has dropped both matchups this weekend. The Braves failed to reach double figures in hits for the fifth straight game in Saturday's 5-1 loss.

The last time Philadelphia (64-69) swept a road series of more than two games came in Atlanta on the final three days of the 2011 season. The Braves averaged 3.0 runs and hit .228 during a 10-20 finish, losing all six matchups with the Phillies, to end up one game behind St. Louis in a wild-card race they led by 9 1/2 in late August.

The Braves lead this year's wild-card chase but have lost 10 of 14, a stretch during which they've scored 2.9 runs per game and hit .213.

"I'm worried about our offense," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We're just not swinging the bats at all. It's easy to say the pitchers are better than us, but enough of that."

Brian McCann, who hit .173 in his final 31 games last year, is batting .171 without a homer since the beginning of August. Michael Bourn, given Saturday off, is hitting .154 in his last 11 games and Jason Heyward has gone 1 for 17 over his past four.

Heyward and Dan Uggla are a combined 0 for 10 with seven strikeouts this year against Hamels (14-6, 2.99 ERA).

Most hitters have been struggling against the left-hander, whose 1.86 ERA in August was fourth-best in the majors. Hamels won the last three decisions of his five starts last month and posted two shutouts, the first coming Aug. 7 against Atlanta in a 3-0 win.

"Give Cole a three-run cushion (in the first inning) and it's awful tough," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "He's tough enough anyway."

Hamels, fully recovered after missing his scheduled start Wednesday due to a stomach ailment, is 4-2 with a 2.17 ERA in his last nine starts against Atlanta.

Paul Maholm (11-9, 3.44) also had a strong August, posting a 2.45 ERA in five starts during his first month with the Braves, but he enters Sunday looking to avoid a third straight loss. The Atlanta offense has totaled one run in his last two games.

All 10 runs he's allowed since being acquired from the Cubs have come on six homers. The left-hander served up just three in his final 12 starts with Chicago.

"You try to be aggressive. Sometimes it hurts you and sometimes it's good," Maholm told the Braves' official website.

He won his lone matchup with the Phillies this year, going 6 1-3 innings of a 5-1 Cubs victory April 27.

Jimmy Rollins is 4 for 21 against Maholm but batting .333 with nine RBIs over his last 11 games, including a homer and two singles Saturday.

John Mayberry Jr. notched his 13th RBI in 14 games, a stretch during which he's batting .358 with four homers.

"We've been playing better, well-rounded baseball," Cliff Lee said after getting a win Saturday, the Phillies' seventh victory in nine games.

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