Phillies vs. Braves: NL East on the line in Phils' biggest series in a decade

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Do or die — Sizing up the Phillies’ biggest series in a decade originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

You can't look ahead. Play one game at a time. Focus on today.

Phillies players and management have given these clichés lip service over the last month or so, but deep down inside, every one of them has been circling a three-day stretch in Atlanta as the potential salvation of their season.

The series that the Phils have long waited for begins Tuesday night as they get one last, desperate shot at the National League East-leading Braves.

The Phillies, whose nine-year postseason drought is the longest in the NL, enter their biggest series in a decade trailing the Braves by 2½ games in the division. The Phils suffered a damaging, 6-0, loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday while the Braves completed a sweep of San Diego out west to add a game to their lead and reduce their magic number for winning a fourth straight NL East title to five.

With just six games remaining, the odds are stacked heavily against the Phillies, but they're within striking distance and they have their best pitcher on the mound in the series opener.

Let's break down the series:

The records

The Braves are 83-72. Technically, they have seven games remaining on their schedule, though they won't make up a rainout with Colorado unless the Phillies make a run over the final week and force them to.

The Braves are just 37-37 at home.

The Phillies are 81-75. They need one more win to have their first winning season since 2011, but that would be little consolation if they miss the playoffs for a 10th straight season.

The Phillis are 34-41 on the road.

Head to head

The Phillies are 9-7 against the Braves this season but have been outscored 75-64 in those games.

The endgame

If the Braves sweep the series, the Phillies will be eliminated.

If the Phillies sweep the Braves, they would leave Atlanta up a half-game in the division heading to Miami for their final three games.

Game 1 is huge

"We've got to win one game Tuesday," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "That's how you have to look at it." 

Girardi is right. According to Fangraphs, the Phillies have just a 12.7 percent chance of winning the division while the Braves are sitting pretty at 87.3 percent.

Losing Tuesday night's opener would drop the Phils 3½ games back with five to play and reduce their tragic number to 3.

After this series

The Braves host the Mets for three and possibly Colorado for one.

The Phillies play three at Miami, where they are 5-9 the last two seasons.

Key stretches

The Phillies opened August with eight straight wins to take over first place in the NL East by 2 games over the Mets and 2½ over the Braves.

In the driver's seat, the Phillies quickly ran off the road. They followed their eight-game winning streak with 11 losses in 15 games while the Braves won 11 of 12 and 16 of 18 to go up 4½ in the division.

The Braves' lead got down to a half-game on September 19, but the Phils haven't been able to get any closer.

The Phillies won five of seven against last-place clubs Baltimore and Pittsburgh in their final homestand, but the Braves responded by winning seven of 10 out west to take their current 2½-game lead.

Pitching matchups

Tuesday night: RHP Zack Wheeler (14-9, 2.79) vs. Charlie Morton (13-6, 3.53)

Wheeler leads the majors in innings (206⅓) and the NL in strikeouts (240). He grew up outside of Atlanta. He's made six starts as a Phillie against the Braves and allowed just seven earned runs in 39⅓ innings, a 1.60 ERA.

Wednesday night: RHP Aaron Nola (9-8, 4.64) vs. LHP Max Fried (13-7, 3.12)

This will be Nola's 25th career start against the Braves, more than any other club. He is 12-7 with a 3.28 ERA against them. On July 25, he pitched 8⅔ innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts and no walks against the Braves. Nola has had a subpar season. His final start of 2021 needs to be a good one.

Fried is 7-2 with a 1.78 ERA since the All-Star break. The Phillies are just 23-27 against left-handed starting pitchers.

Thursday night: RHP Kyle Gibson (4-5, 4.87) vs. RHP Ian Anderson (8-5, 3.60)

Will Girardi use Ranger Suarez instead of Gibson? Frankly, it would not be the regimented Girardi's style to shuffle things like that, but you never know.

Anderson was picked third in the 2016 draft, two spots after the Phillies selected Mickey Moniak No. 1 overall.

MVP candidates

Bryce Harper has carried the Phillies in the second half. He leads the majors with a 1.055 OPS and has a club-record 46 extra-base hits after the All-Star break.

The Braves have a serious MVP candidate in third baseman Austin Riley, who is hitting .303 with 32 homers and 100 RBIs and .335/18/58 in the second half.

Phillies killer Freddie Freeman, hitting .300 with 31 homers and 82 RBIs, will finish in the top 10 of the MVP voting. In 191 career games against the Phils, Freeman has 30 homers, 120 RBIs and a .900 OPS.

Ozzie Albies (30 homers, 103 RBIs), Dansby Swanson (27/85) and Adam Duvall are also dangerous Braves.

The Braves lost big bats Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna and GM Alex Anthopoulos made some brilliant trades at the deadline. Duvall has 16 homers and 43 RBIs since joining the club. Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario have also been huge additions for the offense.

Some interesting numbers

Freeman is 20 for 45 (.444) with 4 doubles, 2 homers, 8 RBIs, 15 walks and 11 strikeouts lifetime vs. Wheeler.

Riley is 9 for 24 with 3 doubles and 3 homers lifetime vs. Nola.

J.T. Realmuto is 10 for 23 with 2 doubles and three 3 homers against Fried. 

Harper is 2 for 28 with 12 strikeouts lifetime against Atlanta lefty relievers A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith.

Harper is 7 for 17 with 2 homers against Fried.

The bullpens

The Phillies have 34 blown saves, tying them with the 2004 Colorado Rockies for the most ever in a single season.

The Braves had had their own issues with 10 blown saves since August 1. Overall, however, the Braves' bullpen has a 3.39 ERA, fifth-best in the majors, over that span.

Overall series key

The Braves have to keep Harper in check and the Phillies have to get contributions beyond their MVP candidate.

Scoring at least four runs per game is crucial for the Phils. They are 39-8 since July 1 when they score four or more.

This series, however, will likely be decided by how the Phillies' pitching handles the Braves' mighty offense. Atlanta ranks third in the majors with 232 homers, fifth in slugging at .436, seventh in OPS at .755, seventh in runs per game at 4.92 and sixth in extra-base hits with 510.

The quotes

"Every time you play somebody, you want to sweep them," Harper said. "We'd be up half a game, right, if we went in there and swept? So, yeah, I would imagine a sweep would be nice."

"It's one of the coolest situations to be in -- an opportunity to clinch at home in front of all our fans," Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud said. "The Phillies are a good team. We're going to have to stay focused. We're all fighting and pulling on the same rope."

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