Manager Charlie Manuel used his off-days strategically and made subtle shifts in his rotation to be sure to have Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt in line to pitch against Atlanta in Philadelphia this week and he can do the same to have them throw against the Braves in Atlanta next week if he must.
His slight gamble could pay big dividends if all three starters perform up to their abilities and the Phillies wind up expanding their lead in the National League East. With a win in the first game of the series, the Phillies have guaranteed that they will lead the east by at least two games when the Braves board their flight out of town. Of course, it’s also possible that the Braves could be buried as far behind as six games if all goes as hoped by Manuel.
Ideally, the Phillies will clinch before heading to Atlanta for the final series of the season, which would allow Manuel to set his rotation for the playoffs rather than for a series against the Braves to win the division.
Braves manager Bobby Cox chose not to adjust his rotation to set things up for the series in Philadelphia, which meant that Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe pitched against the Mets rather than against the Phillies. Of course, it might not have mattered. Even a rotation of Hudson, Lowe and Hanson doesn’t match up to the big three that the Phillies can roll out.
In fact, it’s likely that the Phillies top of the rotation is better than any club in baseball.
Hamels, Halladay and Oswalt have combined for an 11-0 record with an ERA of just 2.09 in the month of September. They’ve also combined to throw 77 2/3 innings in 11 starts, or just over seven innings per start. Those numbers help the Phillies to avoid the weak part of their bullpen and rely on Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, who have both been pitching well for the Phillies down the stretch.
If the rotation stays on schedule, Joe Blanton, Hamels and Halladay would be scheduled to pitch against the Braves in the final series of the season. With off-days, the Phillies could again juggle to have Oswalt join Hamels and Halladay in Atlanta. Hopefully, that won’t be necessary and the Phillies could conceivably just have Hamels and Halladay throw short outings in Atlanta to tune-up for the NLDS, which starts on October 6. That would leave Oswalt to open the NLDS, with Hamels and Halladay set for games two and three.
The bottom line is that the earlier the Phillies can clinch, obviously, the better. With a big three that’s unmatched in baseball, the Phillies will have a definite advantage, especially if they can have the luxury of setting the rotation in the exact order that they would prefer.