Phils start division stretch against Braves

The Phillies ended a three-game series against the New York Mets on Sunday, April 15. That was the last time they faced a division opponent.

A long month of April is over for the Phillies. Amidst all of their struggles, they are still 11-12 and in fourth place 3 1/2 games back of the division leading Nationals, who they will see later this week.

But first the Phillies get to face one of the hottest teams in baseball of late. The Atlanta Braves have won six of their last ten games. After starting the season 0-4, the Braves won 10 of 11 games. This series looks even tougher simply because it's being played in Atlanta. The Braves are 7-3 in games held at Turner Field in 2012 so far.

There isn't too much to analyze as far as differences between this year's Braves and last year's. The faces are familiar. Chipper Jones is on his final tour of the league, playing in his final season. Their lineup is one of the best on paper with players like Martin Prado, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla and Michael Bourn all headlining the group.

And don't forget that this team has a lights out bullpen between Kris Medlen, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.Their starters aren't too bad either.

Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies face the Atlanta Braves for the first time this season. (Philliedelphia/Kevin Durso)

Here's a look at the pitching matchups for the series.

In the opener, Cole Hamels (3-1, 2.73 ERA) faces Brandon Beachy (2-1, 1.05 ERA) – Hamels allowed just two runs over eight innings in the Phillies' 7-2 win over the D'Backs on Wednesday. It was his third straight win after losing his season debut to the Marlins. In his career against the Braves (24 games, 23 starts), Hamels is 11-6 with a 3.72 ERA.

Beachy has been off to a hot start, limiting opposing offenses to minimal run totals. He allowed two runs over 6 1/3 innings in his last start. In his four starts this season, only three of his seven runs allowed have been charged against him as earned runs. In his career against the Phillies (six starts), Beachy is 0-3 with a 3.94 ERA.

In the middle game, Roy Halladay (3-2, 1.95 ERA) goes against Tommy Hanson (3-2, 3.00 ERA) – Halladay allowed three runs over seven innings on Friday against the Cubs, but suffered the loss due to lack of run support. Since starting the season 3-0, Halladay has lost his last two starts despite posting an ERA under two. In his career against the Braves (seven games, six starts), Halladay is 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA.

Hanson allowed one run over six innings in picking up the win in his last start against the Pirates. It was his third win in his last four starts. In his career against the Phillies (seven starts), Hanson is 1-2 with a 2.23 ERA.

In the finale, Joe Blanton (2-3, 3.81 ERA) gets the start against Randall Delgado (2-2, 6.30 ERA) – Blanton pitched brilliantly in his last start, pitching into the eighth inning for the first time in three years and picking up his second win of the season, already surpassing his total from an injury-riddled 2011. In his career against the Braves (11 games, 10 starts), Blanton is 1-4 with a 5.43 ERA.

Delgado failed to make it out of the fifth inning in his last start against the Pirates, allowing four runs in 4 1/3 innings. Since starting the season 2-0, Delgado has lost each of his last two starts. In his career against the Phillies (one start), Delgado is 0-0 with a 3.60 ERA.

Prediction:
May 1 – Phillies 3, Braves 1
May 2 – Phillies 2, Braves 1
May 3 – Phillies 2, Braves 5

This series prediction is solely based on pitching. Brandon Beachy may be off to a hot start, but Cole Hamels has the experience against the Braves. It shouldn't take many runs to win each of the first two games with Hamels and Halladay pitching.

Despite predicting that the Phillies will lose the final game, it could really go either way. Joe Blanton has been a different pitcher in 2012 so far to me. He's not the same guy that you feel you can't trust him to win a game.

Still, the offense will control the fate of this series. The Phillies should be able to hit both Beachy and Delgado. They have in the past. But if they show they can score, the Phillies have the pitching to shut down this lineup. Granted, this lineup could also easily beat the Phillies pitching.

The two teams that were said to be the top two in the NL East have had their moments in April that make you think otherwise. Yet, looking at this series, it could be broken down so deep that it has the feel of a playoff series. It is only May, but this series is one that can help prove April was just an off month for the team favored to win their sixth straight division title.

The Phillies face the Nationals on the road and the Mets at home in their two division series following this series with the Braves.

Kevin Durso is a contributor to Philliedelphia. You can follow him on twitter @KDursoPhilsNet.