The Atlanta Braves are doing their best to try to gain some early separation in the National League East with a huge block of games this month against divisional opponents.
After sweeping the popular pick to win the division, they’ll look for a fourth straight victory in Monday night’s opener of a four-game set against the Philadelphia Phillies, who are also coming off a sweep of a divisional foe.
The visiting Braves (8-4) closed out their three-game home sweep of Washington with a 10-2 victory Sunday, getting home runs from Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. They totaled 23 runs in the series on 33 hits – including seven homers – after scoring 23 runs through their previous nine games.
Upton is 11 for 14 over his last four games with four homers and eight RBIs after going 6 for 30 in his first eight games with 11 strikeouts and no runs driven in.
Atlanta is in the midst of a stretch of 19 straight games against divisional opponents following its opening series in Milwaukee. The Braves were 47-29 against the East in 2013 – the most intradivision wins by an NL club – en route to finishing in first place for the first time in eight years.
They won last season’s series with the Phillies 11-8 while averaging 4.9 runs per game.
"This is where you can get off to a good start and get off to a good lead," said Freeman, who owns a 1.290 OPS during a nine-game hitting streak with eight RBIs in his last five. He’s also driven in 19 runs over his last 25 games versus Philadelphia.
The Braves could be tough to top if they’re able to replicate their offensive success from the weekend behind Monday’s starter Ervin Santana (1-0, 0.00 ERA). Santana was impressive in his Atlanta debut, yielding three hits over eight shutout innings of Wednesday’s 4-3 victory over the Mets. The former career American Leaguer improved to 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA in 32 starts against NL teams.
However, against the Phillies (6-6), Santana will have to face one of baseball’s hottest hitters. Chase Utley was 3 for 4 with his third homer of the season Sunday to help Philadelphia cap its sweep of Miami with a 4-3 victory.
Utley, who has been limited to an average of 105.7 games over the last three seasons due to injuries after five straight All-Star selections, is 20 for 40 with 10 RBIs through as many games. He’s hitless in two at-bats against Santana.
"I just see him in really good shape, moving really well on the field defensively and running the bases," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He’s staying so active on the bases. Maybe that shows how well he’s feeling. That’s (knee problems) a non-issue and he’s having quality at-bats and seeing the ball well."
The Phillies will send Roberto Hernandez (1-0, 4.35) to the mound. He allowed three earned runs over five innings of Wednesday’s 9-4 loss to Milwaukee, finishing one shy of a career high with nine strikeouts. He won his only previous start against Atlanta, yielding two earned runs in seven innings during a 5-2 victory with Cleveland on June 17, 2007.
Santana also recorded a victory in his only matchup with the Phillies, limiting them to an unearned run and two hits with nine strikeouts over seven innings of a 7-1 win with the Angels on June 20, 2008.
Jason Heyward is hitting just .149 through his first 12 contests with 13 strikeouts, though he posted a 1.087 OPS and scored 14 runs in 16 games versus Philadelphia in 2013.