ATLANTA - Kyle Kendrick experimented Tuesday before a 5-2 Phillies win over the Atlanta Braves. He trotted to the left-field grass at Turner Field earlier than usual. He followed his normal preparation, completed his pregame throwing session, and sat for 10 minutes in the bullpen. Then, he threw some more in the muggy Georgian air.
"I was pretty loose early," Kendrick said.
In his first 13 starts, Kendrick allowed 15 first-inning runs (13 earned).
In this start, Kendrick fired three strikes to Jason Heyward, and the Braves' hulking leadoff hitter watched them all.
Next came B.J. Upton, and three more pitches dispatched him on a strikeout. Freddie Freeman cranked a double to deep right, but Justin Upton rolled a cutter to shortstop for the third out.
Kendrick, for once, established an assertive tone.
"It pretty much lasted throughout his outing," Ryne Sandberg said. "Probably his best outing of the year, with command and establishing the strike zone and quality of pitches."
And so the Phillies, winners in six of their last eight games, continue to believe. They are still two games worse than last season's pace, but stand just five back in the inferior National League East. The Braves, a team devoid of offense, are no longer at the top. That honor is Washington's.
No team on pace to lose 89 games has ever contended for a postseason spot. That dulls whatever luster was accomplished Tuesday, when the Phillies escaped last place for the first time since May 26. Still, this is the Phillies' best baseball of the season. Time will tell whether it is an aberration.
"We know where we're at," Kendrick said. "Shoot, we're still in it. Obviously, we're seven under" .500.
Jonathan Papelbon, one night after his first blown save since the third game of the season, achieved redemption with a scoreless ninth.
"We really made a statement," Papelbon said Monday, after his teammates atoned, and that momentum carried over.
Kendrick made it happen. He vowed to right his first-inning problems. The righthander joked after his last start - in which he permitted two runs in the first but none in the subsequent five innings - that he would decline to warm up before his next outing. Instead, he tweaked it.
It helped that Kendrick opposed Atlanta. He has a career 3.34 ERA against the Braves, and those numbers are even better at Turner Field. He spotted his sinker, caught Braves hitters watching the cutter, and stayed ahead in the count.
Atlanta dinged him for single runs in the fifth and seventh innings. The damage could have been worse if not for a couple of well-timed groundouts, especially a crucial double play in the seventh. That came after a brief mound visit from pitching coach Bob McClure.
"Get a double play here," McClure told Kendrick.
Braves catcher Gerald Laird tapped the first pitch to shortstop for two effortless outs. Kendrick pointed to McClure in the dugout.
Great coaching? "Oh," Kendrick said, "awesome."
Kendrick received instant support. Jimmy Rollins led off the game by doubling against Ervin Santana to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, and Ryan Howard crushed his 46th homer in his 143d career game against Atlanta.
Two more runs scored in the fourth; one on a passed ball and another on a Cesar Hernandez single.
The Phillies won while resting Chase Utley and Ben Revere.
"His bat looks sluggish," Sandberg said of Utley. "His swing is a little long."
Utley batted .206 with a .561 OPS in his previous 17 games. So, Hernandez started and rapped two hits.
Revere's left knee was sore after he crashed into the center-field wall Monday. John Mayberry Jr. walked twice.
A makeshift defensive alignment behind Kendrick performed with grace. Kendrick, at his best when he pitches to contact and keeps his sinker at the knees, induced nine groundouts.
He conquered the first inning, and the Braves toppled from first place.