Phillies and Braves Kickoff Three-Game Set Tonight in Atlanta

The last time Philadelphia and Atlanta met, the Phillies left the field victorious and ready to begin the playoffs. The Braves walked off stunned that they would be missing the postseason after holding a seemingly insurmountable wild-card lead just weeks earlier.

Atlanta and Philadelphia open a three-game series Tuesday night at Turner Field, the site where the Phillies eliminated the Braves from playoff contention on the final day of the 2011 regular season.

Had Atlanta managed to win just one of its six games against Philadelphia last September, it would have forced a one-game playoff with St. Louis for the NL wild card that many sportsbooks had the Braves winning.

The Braves, however, dropped all six meetings – part of their 9-18 September collapse – including a season-ending sweep at Turner Field.

Philadelphia limited Atlanta to 11 runs in the six September meetings, while Hunter Pence hit .364 with seven RBIs.

Atlanta’s late-season struggles carried into 2012, as the Braves (14-9) opened 0-4, but they’ve won 14 of 19 since to pull within one-half game of NL East-leading Washington. They enter this series, however, coming off a four-game split at home against Pittsburgh.

The Phillies (11-12) are also coming off an uninspiring four-game split with a lesser opponent, the Chicago Cubs.

“We’re close,” Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said after Monday’s 6-4 win. “Our pitching is there. We have to improve our defense mentally and our timely hitting.”

Cole Hamels (3-1, 2.73 ERA) was the lone starter in Philadelphia’s rotation not to take the ball versus the Cubs, but starting him in the opener against the Braves could work to the Phillies’ advantage.

Hamels has compiled a 2.14 ERA in winning his last three starts, and is looking to win four in a row for the first time since a career-best five start streak Aug. 29-Sept. 20, 2010. The left-hander retired 18 consecutive batters at one point during Wednesday’s 7-2 victory over Arizona, and ended up allowing two runs and four hits in eight innings.

Hamels also has a strong track record in the month of May.

Since his rookie season in 2006, Hamels’ .810 winning percentage in May leads all pitchers with at least 20 decisions. He is 17-4 with a 3.68 ERA in 30 May starts, and is 5-1 with a 3.69 ERA in seven outings versus Atlanta during that month.

Hamels typically fares well against the Braves regardless of what the calendar says, as his 11 wins over Atlanta since 2007 are his most against any opponent. He went 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in four starts against the Braves last season.

Shane Victorino batted .377 with 11 runs against Atlanta in 2011, while Carlos Ruiz hit .304 with nine RBIs.

Halladay Shines in Opening Day 1-0 Win Over Pirates

If only Roy Halladay and the Phillies had gotten this 1-0 win last October.

Halladay was nearly flawless for eight innings Thursday and the Phillies showed off their pitching from the start, opening a new season by edging the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Missing injured stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies scored the lone run they needed on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Ruiz in the seventh. New closer Jonathan Papelbon pitched a perfect ninth for his first National League save.

“It was a good game for us,” Halladay said. “It went the way we wanted and Papelbon came in and got his feet wet and got that out of the way. All in all I think it was a good way to do it.”

For Halladay and his teammates, it was a familiar score with a different winner. Their season ended last year when Halladay lost a 1-0 decision to Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals in the deciding Game 5 in the first round of the NL playoffs.

The Phillies start this season as the favorites to win their sixth straight NL East title.

Making his 10th opening day start, Halladay didn’t argue when manager Charlie Manuel opted to bring in Papelbon.

“I understand at this point,” Halladay said. “A couple weeks from now I’m going to fight him.”

The two-time Cy Young winner sparkled, giving up just two first-inning singles while striking out five without issuing a walk.

Halladay was pulled three outs before getting a chance at his 21st shutout.

“We just didn’t get many pitches to hit,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said.

The Pirates are hardly the Cardinals — who went on to win the World Series last year — yet starter Erik Bedard nearly matched Halladay pitch for pitch, giving up only one run in seven innings. He struck out four and walked one, though it wasn’t enough to keep Pittsburgh from losing its first season opener since 2006.

“I’ve done it before so it wasn’t a big deal but it was nice to get the chance to do it with a new team and it was nice to pitch well in front of the fans,” Bedard said. “Anytime you lose, though, you wind up disappointed. I wish I wouldn’t have been able to hold them off the board but they got one across and that made the difference.”

Ty Wigginton, filling in while Howard continues to rehab his left Achilles, singled with one out in the seventh and John Mayberry followed with a double to right.

Ruiz, who had three hits, sent a fading liner to right and Jose Tabata made the catch, but Wigginton slid under catcher Rod Barajas’ tag to give Philadelphia the lead.

It was just a run, but it was plenty for Halladay.

Hurdle has preached the word “finish” as Pittsburgh’s mantra for 2012 after the Pirates collapsed following a brief flirtation with first place last July. Pittsburgh could never get started, however, against Halladay.

Baseball’s best pitcher over the last decade gave up singles to Alex Presley and Jose Tabata to start the game, eerily similar to the two hits he allowed against St. Louis in that Game 5 last fall. The Cardinals, however, turned those hits into the game’s only run.

Pittsburgh — which brought in veterans Clint Barmes and Barajas to help kick-start one of baseball’s weakest offenses last season — didn’t get that close.

Andrew McCutchen, who signed a $51 million deal last month as the linchpin of the Pirates’ rebuilding project, grounded into a double play and Neil Walker flied out to end the first-inning threat.

That was the only chance the Pirates got against Halladay. Pittsburgh’s only two baserunners over the final eight innings came on hit batters.

“Nobody solves Roy Halladay,” Presley said. “I don’t need to tell anyone how good he is. He pitched a great game. He shut us down after the first inning.”

And Papelbon took care of the ninth. Manuel never hesitated to bring in the former Boston reliever despite Halladay’s dominance.

Halladay never threw more than 88 pitches during spring training and had 92 in eight innings. That was enough for Manuel.

“He hadn’t been stretched out,” Manuel said. “I figure if he went into the ninth and they took some pitches he was going to go to 105-112 somewhere in there. By three or four starts he’ll be wound up to go 115-120.”

Bedard tried to his best to keep pace. Mixing speeds and locating his curveball expertly, the left-hander who has been plagued by injuries throughout his career worked quickly. His only bobble came in the seventh, but it was enough to prevent the Pirates from staying unbeaten all-time in opening day games against the Phillies.

NOTES: Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett, on the 15-day DL, joined the Pirates for opening day festivities but is expected to start for Class A Bradenton on Friday. He is eligible to return on April 10 … Halladay’s 10 opening day starts are tied for the fourth-most in baseball history … The two teams are off Friday and meet again Saturday. Jeff Karstens will start for the Pirates while Cliff Lee gets the nod for Philadelphia.

Pence Pumped for the 2012 Phillies Season

Hunter Pence’s piercing blue eyes grow even wider when he hears the word playoffs.

Reaching the postseason is no longer a dream for Pence. It’s an expectation.

When the Phillies acquired the two-time All-Star right fielder from Houston last July, Pence jumped from one of the worst teams in the majors to one of the best. He got his first taste of pennant fever, and wants more.

“Words can’t describe how amazing it was,” Pence said. “Losing in the first round was pretty painful, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Despite a franchise-record and major league-leading 102 wins, the Phillies lost in five games to eventual World Series champion St. Louis in the NL division series. It was a bitter disappointment for fans and everyone in the organization.

Winning five straight division titles and the 2008 World Series raised expectations to enormous levels in Philadelphia. Now, anything less than another championship isn’t considered a success.

For some, that’s pressure. For Pence, it’s an adrenaline rush.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “It’s a great time to be a part of this organization. It’s great from the top down. The fans are incredible and in this clubhouse, the expectations are to win a World Series. You couldn’t ask for more.”

Pence was considered the missing piece the Phillies needed on offense last year. The team couldn’t find a viable replacement for Jayson Werth, so general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made another major trade with the Astros to get Pence.

Pence hit .324 with 11 homers and 35 RBIs in 54 games for Philadelphia. He finished the season at .314 with 22 homers and a career-best 97 RBIs. Late in the season, Pence replaced Chase Utley as the No. 3 batter, a spot usually reserved for the best all-around hitter in the lineup. With slugger Ryan Howard out indefinitely, Pence may have to bat cleanup to start the season.

“I’m pretty comfortable anywhere,” he said. “They ask me what the difference is and I can’t explain a difference. When you get up to bat, you look at the situation. The difference is what the pitcher is throwing and who’s on base. They have to throw the ball over the plate and you have to hit and find a way to get the job done and help your team win.

Howard Working Out Without a Boot

Ryan Howard is working out without a boot on his left foot.

The 2006 NL MVP fielded grounders while sitting on a stool and wasn’t wearing the protective boot on the field for the first time since a setback three weeks ago.

Howard had a procedure on Feb. 27 to remove an infection around his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon. He was cleared to start light exercises in a boot last week.

It’s still uncertain when three-time All-Star first baseman will return to the Philadelphia Phillies’ lineup, and it’s possible he could miss at least the first two months.

Howard ruptured his Achilles making the final out of last season in a 1-0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL division series.

Wigginton Could Find His Way Into the Starting Lineup

Ty Wigginton came to the Phillies to improve their bench. He could end up being a regular in the starting lineup.

With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley injured and Placido Polanco banged up, Wigginton’s role might be significantly increased. He can fill in at first base for Howard, or at third base for Polanco. It’s also possible he’ll be in the lineup with Polanco, who can play second base.

“The way I look at it is that it’s our job to come to the yard ready to play every day, and when the manager calls upon you, help your team win the game,” Wigginton said. “That’s been my attitude whether I knew that I was starting and batting in a regular spot or whatever. It’s our job to be ready every single day and that’s been my mindset.

“I’ve never worried about playing time throughout my career. If you produce, they’re going to find a spot for you and that’s how my career has gone. Everywhere I went, they say they don’t know where or how they are going to use me — and I (still) end up getting my at-bats. It boils down to if you help your team win ball games, you’ll be in.”

Wigginton was an All-Star in 2010 with Baltimore when he had 22 homers and drove in 76 runs. He hit .242 with 15 homers and 47 RBI in 130 games with Colorado last year.

The Phillies were interested in acquiring Wigginton in 2009 before he joined the Orioles. He was thrilled to finally join them this offseason.

“I remember when I first got the call and was told I was traded over here, I don’t think I quit smiling for over two weeks,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”

Phillies Rank 5th in List of MLB’s Most Vaulable Teams

The National Pastime is flourishing thanks to cable companies’ desire for live baseball programming. The Phillies are in the mix, coming in as the 5th most valuable team in MLB.

The average Major League Baseball team rose 16 percent in value during the past year, to an all-time high of $605 million. In 2011, revenue (net of payments to cover stadium debt) for the league’s 30 teams climbed to an average of $212 million, a 3.4 percent gain over the previous season. But operating income (in the sense of earnings before non-cash charges and interest expenses) fell 13 percent, to an average of $14 million in part due to a 5.1 percent increase in player costs (including benefits and signing bonuses for amateurs), to $3.5 billion in 2011.

Rights fees paid by cable television channels are behind the growth in team values. Aggregate cable television revenue for baseball’s 30 teams has increased to $923 million from $328 million over the past 10 years. And thanks to new television deals inked by teams like the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Texas Rangers that have yet to kick in, as well as the pending deal for the San Diego Padres and a likely rich deal that will begin in 2014 for whom ever buys the Los Angeles Dodgers, local television revenue could exceed $1.5 billion in 2015.

The top 10:

1. New York Yankees ($1.85 billion)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers ($1.4 billion)
3. Boston Red Sox ($1 billion)
3. Chicago Cubs ($1 billion)
5. Philadelphia Phillies ($723 million)
6. New York Mets ($719 million)
7. Texas Rangers ($674 million)
8. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ($656 million)
9. San Francisco Giants ($643 million)
10. Chicago White Sox ($600 million)

Time for Freddy Galvis to Step Up for the Phillies

On a day Freddy Galvis learned he might be the starting second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies on Opening Day, the rookie prospect showed more of his potential.

Galvis ripped a two-run triple in Philadelphia’s 4-3 over Detroit on March 19.

Now the guy once considered the shortstop of the future might end up replacing Chase Utley at second base. Utley, a five-time All-Star, is doubtful to be ready to start the season, according to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

Utley has a chronic knee condition that affects both knees, not just the right knee as originally thought.

“He’s got bad knees,” Amaro said. “He’s got a cartilage issue. You can’t grow cartilage. So it’s partially tendinitis and partially a cartilage issue. So hopefully we can get him to the point where he’s feeling confident about playing on it.”

Utley missed the first 46 games last year and had his worst offensive season after returning. The Phillies also are missing Ryan Howard, so they’ll have to find two other players to provide offense in the middle of the lineup.

Galvis has been Philadelphia’s best player this spring. He’s an excellent defensive player and has the potential to be a decent hitter. Galvis has drawn praise from manager Charlie Manuel for his baseball instincts and fielding. He’s hitting .282 with four extra-base hits and 10 RBI in 16 games.

“Freddy has done a nice job for us,” Amaro said. “I like Galvis. Has Galvis done anything to warrant not playing? He’s been our best player this spring. We’re going to give him a chance.”

Placido Polanco Day to Day with a Sprained Left Finger

Already having doubts about Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies are now worried about third baseman Placido Polanco, who is day to day because of a sprained left ring finger.

The All-Star injured his hand diving back into first base on a pickoff play in the first inning of Philadelphia’s win over Toronto on Saturday. X-rays were negative and he’s expected to miss a few games. Ty Wigginton was in the starting lineup at third base against the Blue Jays on Sunday.

The Phillies are missing three-fourths of their infield. Howard’s return in uncertain after having surgery on his Achilles. Utley has a chronic knee condition but hopes to play in a game soon.