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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

After dispatching Nats, Braves face rejuvenated Utley & Phils

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PHILADELPHIA – Now that the Braves have dispatched the Nationals yet again and bounced back from a series loss to the Mets to post a 4-2 record on their first homestand, it’s back on the road to face a couple of other NL East rivals in Philly beginning tonight and New York beginning Friday.

And while the Nats are the Braves’ primary, and probably only, competition for the division title this year, the Phillies and Mets have proven to be tougher opponents in head-to-head competition over the past two or three seasons than the Nationals, whom the Braves have beaten in 22 of their past 29 meetings

Not just beaten – the Braves have a 2.05 ERA in those 29 games against the Nats, who’ve hit just .216 while averaging about 2.5 runs in those games. One of those baseball things that you just can’t really explain. At this point there is no doubt the Braves are in the Nats’ noggins, but we know how quickly that can change and how things can balance out.

Justin Upton had four homers in the last four games of the Braves' homestand that  ended Sunday.

Justin Upton had four homers in the last four games of the Braves’ homestand that ended Sunday.

The Braves need to be at their best the next time they face the Nats, just as they were this weekend in Atlanta. Keep hammering them head-to-head and the chances of defending the division title look pretty good for the Bravos.

The Nationals will have two-plus months to think about it and try to get healthy before they face the Braves again in a four-game series June 19-22 in D.C. In the meantime, they can stew over how the Braves turned a two-game deficit into a one-game lead over the  Nats with the weekend sweep in Atlanta that also gave the Braves a stunning 10-1 record against them over the past two Aprils.

Now it’s on to face the Phillies, who had their half-decade run of the NL East but have just mostly old and ill-conceived as a unit for a couple of years. While the Braves haven’t dominated them quite like they have the Nats of late, Atlanta is 22-12 with a 3.23 ERA in its past 34 games against the Phillies, going back to the beginning of July 2012.

However, the Phillies won four of the last seven games between the teams in 2013, including a three-game sweep here in Philly Sept. 6-8. And the Phillies will be jacked up and ready to keep a good thing going after completing a Chase Utley-fueled sweep of the Marlins over the weekend to even their record at 6-6, one game behind the second-place Nats and two behind the Braves.

While the Braves have two of the majors’ hottest hitters in Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, the latter of whom seems likely to win the NL Player of the Week award that will be announced later today, it’s the Phillies who have the major league leader in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS. All the same guy: Chase Utley.

He’s turned back the clock so far this season, finally healthy and playing like the Utley of several years ago. The second baseman is batting a ridiculous .500 with a .565 OBP and .875 slugging percentage, for a tidy 1.440 OPS.

Freeman is third in the majors in average (.442) and second in the other three categories: OBP (.519), slugging (.814) and OPS (1.333).

Meanwhile, Justin Upton has been even hotter the past week than both of them.

In his past past 8 games, J-Up has hit .552 (16-for-29) with 4 HR, a .629 OBP and a 1.034 slugging percentage, and in his past four games he has 11 hits, four homers and eight RBIs.

I would think he’ll be NL Player of the Week over Utley and the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez, who was a one-man wrecking crew with three homers and 10 RBIs in a three-game weekend sweep at Arizona. Thing is, Upton has a higher average, OBP and slugging percentage than Gonzalez over the past week, and the same number of doubles (two) and homers (four).

This series in Philly will feature hitters with three of the five highest OPS in the majors, with Upton fifth at 1.175.

By the way, in his past 15 games against the Nationals, Justin Upton is 28-for-60 (.487) with four doubles, six homers, 12 RBIs, a .543 OBP and an .833 slugging percentage.

• Other Upton: Older brother B.J. had an encouraging homestand for the Braves, and is 8-for-31 (.258) with three extra-base hits and a .452 slugging percentage over his past eight games. Only has a .281 OBP in that stretch and .208 (fifth-lowest in the NL) for the season, but considering from whence he came, the Braves will gladly take the recent progress from the center fielder, after his brutal 2013 season and whiff-plagued spring training and first games of the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Braves hope that Jason Heyward’s big double Sunday – and some well-struck balls for outs earlier in the series – are signs of him breaking out of his early funk. He had gone hitless in eight of his past nine games before Sunday, and for his last 10 games he’s still just 4-for-39 (.103) with two extra-base hits and a .255 OBP, with 11 strikeouts.

The other Brave whose numbers continue to lag is Dan Uggla, who is 6-for-33 (.182) with no extra-base hits, one walk and 12 strikeouts in his past nine games. Though he does have a sac fly and five RBIs in that stretch, including a couple of big ribbies.

• No “K” in Simba: Andrelton Simmons moved up to fifth in the lineup Sunday and responded with a triple and a home run. What he didn’t get was a strikeout, raised his major league-leading total to 40 plate appearances still without a strikeout this season.

Simmons is 9-for-28 (.321) with three extra-base hits and four RBIs in his past seven games. Something about that eight-hole with the Braves. Chris Johnson excelled in it last season before eventually moving up in the order, and Simmons has for most of this season.

Andrelton Simmons homered and tripled Sunday, and still hasn't struck out this season through 40 plate appearances.

Andrelton Simmons homered and tripled Sunday, and still hasn’t struck out this season through 40 plate appearances.

Next-best strikeout ration in the majors belongs to Toronto’s Dioner Navarro, who has whiffed just once in 50 PAs. Ranked second and fourth in the NL in that category are Utley (two K’s in 46 PAs) and Freeman (four K’s in 52 PAs). Yes, Utley and Freeman are hitting and slugging likes houses afire, all while rarely striking out. That sure bucks a trend in recent years, doesn’t it?

Freeman and Utley are also tied for second in the NL in two-strike batting average at .438 (each is 7-for-16 when putting the ball in play in those situations), and Simmons is right behind them, alone at fourth in the league at .417 (5-for-12). J-Up is eighth in the NL in that category at .367 (11-for-30).

• Tonight’s matchup: In the series opener it’ll be Ervin Santana making his second start for the Braves and facing another longtime former American Leaguer, Roberto Hernandez.

Santana is5-4 with a 2.81 ERA in 15 starts since the 2013 All-Star break, including eight scoreless innings of three-hit ball to beat the Mets on Wednesday in his Braves debut. He’s only faced the Phillies once, a 2008 win at Philadelphia in which he allowed just two hits and one unearned run in seven innings.

Hernandez had 14 strikeouts with only two walks in 10-1/3 innings over his first two starts, but his 10 hits allowed included a homer in each game. He got no decision after allowing seven hits and four runs (three earned) in five innings  Wednesday vs. Milwaukee. Hernandez’s only start against the Braves came in 2007.

• Let’s close with one from Bill Callahan‘s 2011 album Apocalypse. You can hear the tune by clicking here.

 “RIDING FOR THE FEELING” by Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan

It’s never easy to say goodbye to the faces
So rarely do we see another one, so close and so long
I asked the room if I’d said enough, no one really answered
They just said, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go, don’t go”
Well all this leaving is neverending
I kept hoping for one more question or for someone to say
“Who do you think you are?” so I could tell them
With intensity, the drop evaporates by law
In conclusion, leaving is easy
When you’ve got some place you need to be
I’m giving up this gig for another season
With the TV on mute, I’m listening back to the tapes
On the hotel bed, my my my apocalypse
My my my apocalypse
I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels
Or riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Is the fastest way to reach the shore on water or land
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling

What if I had stood there at the end
And said again and again and again and again and again
In answer to every question?
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Riding for the riding, for the riding and for the ride
Riding for the feeling, riding for the feeling
Riding for the feeling

Would that have been a suitable goodbye?

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