What's colder than cold? Not the Braves. . .
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What's colder than cold? Not the Braves. . .
David Murphy, Daily News Staff Writer
It has been five years since the Braves were in first place in the National League East this late into the season. That was the year they won their 14th and final consecutive division title, the end of an era of phenomenal pitching talent (Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine) and home-grown position players (Rafael Fucal, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones).
But beware - the feeling here in Atlanta is that those days might soon start again.
"There was a real confidence in the Atlanta clubhouse before turning to a series against the Philadelphia Phillies," Braves beat writer David O'Brien writes in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "There was a swagger based not on where the Braves once were, but where they are."
Atlanta is coming off a three-game sweep of the Pirates, a team that more than a week ago kicked off this recent run of putrid offense by the Phillies by holding them to one run in the final game of a two-game series at Citizens Bank Park.
The Braves have won 10 of their last 12 and enter today's Memorial Day match-up, which pits righthander Tommy Hanson against righthander Joe Blanton, a half game behind the Phillies in the National League East.
Yunel Escobar, who has hurt the Phillies in the past, is starting to hit. Rookie out fielder Jason Heyward sealed yesterday's win with a two-run triple in the eighth. Troy Glaus has hit five home runs in May and leads the NL with 25 RBI in the month.
The feeling inside the Phillies clubhouse is that their recent run of offensive impotence is bound to lift. But as bad as the club's offense has been at times over the last few seasons, it has never been this bad.
They haven't reached double-digits in hits in any of their last 12 games, their longest stretch since April of 2000 and one that has been equalled only seven times since 1980. Only the Mets (16 games) and Braves (13) have gone longer stretches without reaching 10 hits this season.
The Phillies have gone eight straight games with fewer than four runs, tied with the Mariners for the longest in the majors this season, and their longest stretch since 1997, when they went 11 games.
Most noticable has been the absence of power.
They have not hit a home run in six games, their longest drought since 1999, when they went homerless for seven games in July and six games in September (the longest in the majors this season is nine games by the Cardinals).
If you are looking for historical precedents, the one set by the Phillies is actually favorable -- that was the last time they were shut-out three times in a row, which occurred during a stretch of 14 straight games in which they managed fewer than 10 hits.
They went to the World Series that year. Of course, they went on to lose, and finished the regular season hitting just .249.
They also played in a weak division that year, their 90 wins good enough to finish the regular season with a six-game lead over the second-place Pirates.
The difference this time around is that the NL East is the most competitive division in the league, with five teams separated by no more than four games.
By no means are these dire straits. Last Memorial Day, the Phillies led the NL East by just a half a game, and they had yet to endure their worst stretch of the season, a June run in which they lost 15 of their 26 games.
The Phillies have earned the benefit of the doubt. The last two years, they have endured similar struggles at the plate. However long this run continues -- and it has continued in the past for longer than 10 days -- they have shown that it will end some day.
At the beginning of the year, there was significant hope that this year would be different, that the addition of Placido Polanco and the emergence of Jayson Werth and the return of a healthy and productive Jimmy Rollins would allow them to put together six months of quality offensive baseball.
That hope could still be fulfilled, provided Rollins returns from the disabled list next week and Polanco shakes the elbow soreness that has plagued him since he was hit with a pitch during the Phillies' most recent series in Atlanta.
In the mean time, the Braves are both hot and confident, a bad combination given the current state of the Phillies' line-up.