Sunday, June 8, 2008

Braves Bullpen Falters Again as Phillies Sweep

When Chase Utley strolled to the plate with runners on second and third and one out in the ninth inning of a one-run game, Braves manager Bobby Cox was forced to pick his poison. Should the Braves pitch to Utley, the current favorite for the NL MVP, or go after former MVP Ryan Howard with the bases loaded? Cox opted for Howard and his low-.200's batting average. Howard responded with a double to deep left field that scored two runs and dashed the Braves' comeback hopes.

On paper, today's match-up appeared to favor the Braves. Atlanta starter Jorge Campillo entered the game with an impressive 1.79 ERA, compared to Adam Eaton's 4.63. If the Phillies were impressed by Campillo's numbers, they didn't show it. They scored two runs in the first inning off a Howard double and a Geoff Jenkins RBI ground-out and it looked like they might coast to another blowout win.

Also playing in the Phillies' favor was the fact that the Braves lineup was thinner than usual. Chipper Jones and his absurd .420 batting average took the day off due to a strained right quad and Brian McCann got a regularly scheduled day off from his catching duties. Early on, the Braves didn't seem to notice. After Eaton got a pair of easy outs, Yunel Escobar, hitting in Chipper's customary spot, doubled and Mark Teixeira tied the game with a blast to center.

The Phillies got the lead back in the third on another Howard double, but that too was short-lived. In the bottom of the fourth, Josh Anderson tied the game with a single to center field that plated Omar Infante. The 3-3 score would remain until the ninth inning.

Eaton flirted with disaster the entire game, allowing at least one baserunner in every inning except, oddly enough, his final one. It was still enough to keep the game tied and earn him a quality start, his fourth straight. Campillo had a decent outing as well, lasting 5 1/3 innings and surrendering just the three runs. However, the game became a battle of the bullpens; a contest that heavily favored the Phillies.

Chad Durbin replaced Eaton and pitched two scoreless innings and the Braves got 2 2/3 out of Buddy Carlyle and Will Ohman before the decisive ninth. With an uncertain closing situation, Cox turned to Blaine Boyer to pitch the ninth. After getting Chris Coste to foul out, pinch hitter Eric Bruntlett and Jimmy Rollins singled, putting the winning run in scoring position for Shane Victorino, who has played as pivotal a role in this series as anyone on either team. Victorino delivered once again, hitting a single up the middle to score Bruntlett. Boyer then intentionally walked Utley, loading the bases for Howard, who sliced a double, his third of the game, to left field. Rollins and Victorino scored and the Phillies led 6-3.

The extra two RBIs helped, but one was all the Phillies really needed, as Brad Lidge notched his seventeenth save with a perfect ninth inning and the Phillies completed an impressive three-game sweep of the Braves.

Did Cox make the right decision when he decided to load the bases for Howard in the ninth inning? Probably. But with the way the Phillies are playing now it just didn't matter.

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