For 4 1/2 months, the Atlanta Braves did an admirable job of putting last season's miserable September behind them.
Last year's late-season struggles, however, are starting to creep back into the picture.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of last year, the scuffling Braves open September on Saturday, when they host the resurgent Philadelphia Phillies .
Through Aug. 17, Atlanta (74-58) had the majors' fourth-best record and owned a four-game lead for the NL's top wild-card spot. With nine losses in 13 games since, the Braves, who blew a 9 1/2-game lead last September, find St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles right on their heels.
The offense has been responsible for some of the team's problems, averaging 3.1 runs while batting .213 in the last 13 games after averaging 4.7 runs with a .255 average to start the year. No. 3 hitter Jason Heyward is 0 for 13 in the last three games, while cleanup hitter Chipper Jones is batting .158 with one RBI in the last six.
"Honestly, I don't think anyone is really concerned with last year at all," scheduled starter Tim Hudson (13-4, 3.57 ERA) told the Braves' official website. "We're a different team than we were last year. All we can do is just go out there and control how hard we play and try to do our job the best way we can."
The Braves appeared to be in good shape to take Friday's opener leading 5-4 in the ninth, but closer Craig Kimbrel served up a game-tying homer to Erik Kratz , and John Mayberry Jr. hit a three-run shot in the 10th to hand Atlanta an 8-5 loss. It was the ninth win in 13 games for the Phillies (63-69).
Ryan Howard homered and drove in three runs Friday, and is 5 for 12 with three home runs and eight RBIs in his last three games in the series. Another big game from the slugger could be in store, considering he's hitting .344 with seven homers in 61 career at-bats against Hudson, who gave up a run and five hits in seven innings in Sunday's 7-1 win over San Francisco.
Hudson alternated good and bad starts in August, posting a 0.44 ERA in his three wins, but an 8.71 ERA in the other two. One of those bad showings came in Philadelphia on Aug. 8, when he allowed six runs in 4 1-3 innings. He is still 4-0 with a 3.18 ERA in his last six home games in the series.
The Phillies counter with Cliff Lee (3-7, 3.67), whose 1.64 ERA in September since 2010 is the second-lowest in baseball among pitchers with at least 47 innings.
Lee gave up a run and seven hits in seven innings in Sunday's 4-1 win over Washington for his first victory at Citizens Bank Park since Sept. 5. The left-hander hasn't pitched as bad as his record indicates - his ERA is just a shade worse than Hudson's yet he owns 10 fewer wins - but has been victimized by poor run support, receiving one or less in 11 of 23 starts.
"He's had a different kind of a season," Charlie Manuel told the Phillies' official website. "It's really hard to analyze it. ... He's had one of those years."
Lee, who is facing the Braves for the first time this year, was 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his final three starts of last season's series.
Atlanta's Freddie Freeman homered Friday and has been one of the team's few bright spots offensively lately, hitting four home runs in the last six games, but he's 2 for 13 with five strikeouts lifetime against Lee.
|August 29, 2012||Cole Hamels||Day-to-Day||Gastrointestinal illness|
|August 29, 2012||Vance Worley||15-Day DL||Loose bodies in right elbow|
|August 28, 2012||Domonic Brown||Day-to-Day||Left game - left knee soreness|
|August 24, 2012||Brian Schneider||15-Day DL||Strained left hamstring|
|August 13, 2012||Nate Schierholtz||15-Day DL||Fractured right big toe|
|August 03, 2012||Carlos Ruiz||15-Day DL||Plantar fasciitis, left foot|
|August 25, 2012||Ben Sheets||15-Day DL||Right shoulder inflammation|
|August 10, 2012||Chipper Jones||Day-to-Day||Back tightness|
|August 01, 2012||Jair Jurrjens||15-Day DL||Strained right groin|
|July 31, 2012||Tommy Hanson||15-Day DL||Lower back strain|
|July 31, 2012||Tommy Hanson||15-Day DL||Lower back strain|
|July 20, 2012||Matt Diaz||15-Day DL||Right thumb surgery - out for season|
ATLANTA (AP) -- Cliff Lee got some rare run support.
That's all he needed.
Lee threw five-hit ball over seven scoreless innings, leading the Philadelphia Phillies past the slumping Atlanta Braves 5-1 on Saturday.
"It looks like he enjoyed pitching," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He had a four- or five-run lead and he started feeling comfortable and feeling like he could pitch the way he wanted to."
Jimmy Rollins hit his 16th homer for the Phillies, who got off to a good September start after a strong August.
The wild card-leading Braves are heading in the opposite direction with three straight losses and only four wins in their past 14 games, rekindling memories of their historic collapse last season.
"I'm worried about our offense," said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose team has scored only 10 runs in the past five games. "We're just not swinging the bats at all. It's easy to say the pitchers are better than us, but enough of that."
Lee (4-7) came in with a record that was hardly indicative of the way he's pitched this season. The Phillies had been held to three runs or fewer in 14 of his 23 starts.
The Phillies jumped on Tim Hudson (13-5) right away, going ahead in the first and blowing the game open with two runs in the sixth. Lee was on cruise control the whole way.
"I felt like I was locating pretty good, mixing my off-speed pitches and staying out of the heart of the plate," he said. "When you're doing that, it's hard to hit."
Lee left the game for precautionary reasons after his left hamstring cramped on a sweltering day. The temperature was 90 degrees at the first pitch, with stifling humidity.
One thing he's not doing is looking back on all the tough luck this season.
"What's done is done," Lee said. "We've been playing better, well-rounded baseball."
Hudson took his first loss since July 1, snapping a streak of seven straight wins. He gave up nine hits, walked three and was charged with all five Phillies runs.
"I just wasn't very good today," he said. "That's probably the worst stuff I've had all year. It was a battle all the way."
Rollins led off the game with a single. After Juan Pierre hit into a forceout and Chase Utley flied out, Ryan Howard and John Mayberry came through with two-out singles, the second of which brought home the first run.
Rollins led off the third with a homer off the right-field foul pole, making it 2-0, and Philadelphia extended its advantage with more clutch hitting in the fifth. With two outs, Pierre slapped a weak grounder in a perfect spot between third base and shortstop, then came all the way around to score on Utley's double to center.
The Phillies started the sixth with three straight singles off Hudson, loading the bases. Lee worked the count full, fouled off a 3-2 pitch, then took a pitch that was just off the inside corner to force in a run. That was it for Hudson, who glared at plate umpire Angel Hernandez as he trudged slowly toward the dugout.
Luis Avilan got Rollins on a popup, but pinch-hitter Ty Wigginton beat the relay throw to first when the Braves attempted to turn a double play, bringing home another run for a 5-0 lead.
Atlanta threatened twice against Lee, who got out of both jams by retiring Brian McCann . The left-hander struck out five and walked only one.
Chipper Jones and Freddie Freeman singled with two outs in the fourth, but McCann flied out to center. In the sixth, again with two outs, Jason Heyward and Jones had back-to-back hits and Freeman walked to load the bases. McCann squandered another chance, popping out to Rollins in short left field, his head dropping as soon as the ball left his bat.
The Braves avoided a shutout on Martin Prado 's ninth homer off B.J. Rosenberg in the eighth. That was of little consolation to a team that seemingly had a comfortable September lead in the wild-card race a year ago, only to be edged by St. Louis on the final day of the season.
Atlanta came into Saturday leading the Cardinals by three games for the first NL wild-card spot, with Pittsburgh only 3 1/2 games behind the Braves.
Notes: The Braves called up four players before the game to take advantage of the expanded roster. RHP Peter Moylan , OF Jose Constanza , 1B Lyle Overbay and C J.C. Boscan came to Atlanta from Triple-A Gwinnett. Moylan, once a valuable member of the Braves' bullpen before a series of injuries, worked a scoreless eighth in his first appearance this season. ... IF Jeff Baker also joined the team after being acquired the previous day in a trade with Detroit. He struck out swinging as a pinch-hitter in the seventh. ... The Phillies didn't call up any players from the minors with the expanded roster, but they did activate OF Nate Schierholtz from the disabled list.