Three Cuts: Red-hot Braves clip Phillies, add to NL East lead
Taking three cuts as the Braves dropped the Phillies 4-1, completed their third sweep in a row and ran their winning streak to 10 straight games.
1. The NL East lead grows -- and it could get even bigger
Chris Johnson swept Cliff Lee's two-out, two-strike cutter into right field, scoring Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman as the National League's batting leader -- now at .346 -- gave the Braves all the offense they needed in pushing their East lead to 12 1/2 games.
The Braves would leave Philadelphia 22 games over .500 and holding their largest division lead since they were up by 15 games on Aug. 28, 2003.
The good news for the Braves and the bad news for the rest of the East is that the gap is poised to grow as Atlanta turns its attention to the Nationals -- and Bryce Harper.
Washington, the chic pick in the preseason to win the division, has lost 10 of 16 since the All-Star break and seven of their last 11 at home, where they'll be playing Atlanta.
Amid that erratic play, the Nats' young star Harper gave Braves fans plenty of Twitter fodder when he said, "We need to get going and play better, hit better, have better ABs in certain situations and pitch better, also. We play the Braves nine games. This [season] ain't over. I really don't think it's over."
The Nationals could have their hands full in proving otherwise.
Ranking 28th in the majors in runs and 26th in average, they'll face Mike Minor (1.53 ERA over his last five starts) and Julio Teheran (2.43 ERA in his last 18) in Game 1 and 2, then a surging Kris Medlen in the finale.
This team still has a ways to go with 50 games remaining, but here's something worth watching: in 1995, the year of the franchise's last World Series title, they won the division by 21 games and no other East team finished above .500 that season.
These Braves, with a schedule that currently includes just seven games against teams with a winning record (and not a one of them is in the division) have a chance to rival the '95 team's East domination.
As Harper notes, it "ain't over." But the Braves head to Washington poised to bring it that much closer to reality.
2. The Braves are going to have a decision on their hands (Version 3.0)
With Paul Maholm (left wrist contusion) eligible to return from the 15-day disabled list Monday, the Braves are once again faced with a decision that has been like a broken record/CD/MP3/whatever-the-kids-are-listening-to-these-days: what's going to happen to the pitching staff?
The easy answer would be that Alex Wood, 22, is headed back to the bullpen or to the minors and Maholm will reclaim his spot in the rotation, putting him alongside Minor, Medlen, Teheran and Brandon Beachy.
But isn't Wood's recent play at least giving the brain trust of Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren something to think about?
Wood (2-2) allowed two hits and one earned run over six innings, striking out three and walking two. In his last three starts, which also includes outings against the Mets and Rockies, he has a 4.15 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.
Maholm, meanwhile, has fallen off since winning six of his first 10 starts, with a 5.53 ERA and 3-5 record in his last 10, a stretch where opponents have hit .316 against him.
There is the fact that Maholm is the most veteran pitcher left on the roster after Tim Hudson's season-ending ankle injury with nine years and 236 starts under his belt. That can't be pointed to enough and chances are he'll join the rotation again very soon.
It sets up a murky immediate future for Wood. That he was already sent back to the minors to stretch him as a starter and that the Braves' traded for another lefty reliever in Scott Downs would lead you to think he's headed back to Triple-A if he's not part of the major league staff.
But credit Wood that four starts into his career we're even discussing the possibility of him supplanting a nine-year veteran.
3. Is B.J. Upton close to breaking out?
The return of the elder Upton brother from a 17-game absence with a strained right abductor brought with it some concerns. Chief among them was whether placing him back in the lineup would upset the balance Fredi Gonzalez had found in his reconfigured 1-8.
Give Upton this: In Game 2 of his return, he gave glimpses of the player Atlanta envisioned when it signed him to a five-year, $75.25 million contract -- and not the one who posted the third-lowest OPS (.565) of any player with at least 300 plate appearances, trailing only the White Sox's Jeff Keppinger (.539) and Royals' Alcides Escobar (.561).
After singling in his first at-bat, Upton led off the fourth inning by taking Cliff Lee's first pitch and sending it just over the right field fence for what was seemingly his ninth homer of the season and the first since June 15. But after a long review it was ruled a ground-rule double -- the call would ultimately matter little on the scoreboard as Jason Heyward scored Upton three batters later -- giving Upton three hits in nine at-bats since his return.
It wasn't an eye-opening performance, but when you add in his strong rehab assignment, as Upton went 4-for-12 (.333) with three doubles and two RBI in three games with Triple-A Gwinnett and that he's driving the ball the opposite way in his return, this could be the beginning of a streak for a player that has shown a propensity for them (he hit 21 of his 28 home runs in '12 in the second half).
It may be akin to grasping for straws with a player hitting .182/.271/.305, but Upton at least looks like he's reclaiming the swing the Braves thought they were getting and that could make this offense that much more difficult to deal with.