Phillies-Braves Preview

The Associated Press

For 4 1/2 months, the Atlanta Braves did an admirable job of putting last season's miserable September behind them.

Last year's late-season struggles, however, are starting to creep back into the picture.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of last year, the scuffling Braves open September on Saturday, when they host the resurgent Philadelphia Phillies.

Through Aug. 17, Atlanta (74-58) had the majors' fourth-best record and owned a four-game lead for the NL's top wild-card spot. With nine losses in 13 games since, the Braves, who blew a 9 1/2-game lead last September, find St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles right on their heels.

The offense has been responsible for some of the team's problems, averaging 3.1 runs while batting .213 in the last 13 games after averaging 4.7 runs with a .255 average to start the year. No. 3 hitter Jason Heyward is 0 for 13 in the last three games, while cleanup hitter Chipper Jones is batting .158 with one RBI in the last six.

"Honestly, I don't think anyone is really concerned with last year at all," scheduled starter Tim Hudson (13-4, 3.57 ERA) told the Braves' official website. "We're a different team than we were last year. All we can do is just go out there and control how hard we play and try to do our job the best way we can."

The Braves appeared to be in good shape to take Friday's opener leading 5-4 in the ninth, but closer Craig Kimbrel served up a game-tying homer to Erik Kratz, and John Mayberry Jr. hit a three-run shot in the 10th to hand Atlanta an 8-5 loss. It was the ninth win in 13 games for the Phillies (63-69).

Ryan Howard homered and drove in three runs Friday, and is 5 for 12 with three home runs and eight RBIs in his last three games in the series. Another big game from the slugger could be in store, considering he's hitting .344 with seven homers in 61 career at-bats against Hudson, who gave up a run and five hits in seven innings in Sunday's 7-1 win over San Francisco.

Hudson alternated good and bad starts in August, posting a 0.44 ERA in his three wins, but an 8.71 ERA in the other two. One of those bad showings came in Philadelphia on Aug. 8, when he allowed six runs in 4 1-3 innings. He is still 4-0 with a 3.18 ERA in his last six home games in the series.

The Phillies counter with Cliff Lee (3-7, 3.67), whose 1.64 ERA in September since 2010 is the second-lowest in baseball among pitchers with at least 47 innings.

Lee gave up a run and seven hits in seven innings in Sunday's 4-1 win over Washington for his first victory at Citizens Bank Park since Sept. 5. The left-hander hasn't pitched as bad as his record indicates - his ERA is just a shade worse than Hudson's yet he owns 10 fewer wins - but has been victimized by poor run support, receiving one or less in 11 of 23 starts.

"He's had a different kind of a season," Charlie Manuel told the Phillies' official website. "It's really hard to analyze it. ... He's had one of those years."

Lee, who is facing the Braves for the first time this year, was 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his final three starts of last season's series.

Atlanta's Freddie Freeman homered Friday and has been one of the team's few bright spots offensively lately, hitting four home runs in the last six games, but he's 2 for 13 with five strikeouts lifetime against Lee.

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