Braves pound Phillies, sweep series
Atlanta 3-0 for first time since '94; six-run fifth breaks it open
PHILADELPHIA -- Throughout Spring Training, the Braves tended to downplay their thoughts regarding Jimmy Rollins' proclamation that the Phillies were the team to beat in the National League East.
But after completing their season-opening, three-game series sweep of the Phillies with an 8-4 victory at Citizens Bank Park on a chilly Thursday afternoon, the Braves admitted that they were at least somewhat motivated by the Phillies shortstop's preseason proclamation.
"You say something like that, you're going to get everybody's attention," Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson said. "I think everybody has taken a lot of pride, as they should because everybody is a competitor."
It was Johnson's two-run homer that keyed the six-run fifth inning that the Braves used to make sure this series finale wouldn't require the extra-inning conclusion that the first two games had brought.
With the series sweep in hand, the Braves find themselves with their first 3-0 start since the 1994 season and the confidence that can be gained by sweeping an offensively potent team like the Phillies, that was for the most part shut down by a strong Atlanta pitching staff.
"We're pleased with the way we played up here," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "If we play 162 games like we did up here, we're going to win a lot of games."
After watching his team's revamped bullpen look rock solid until falling victim to cold conditions in Thursday's ninth inning, Jones has every right to feel confident about his team's chances of regaining the National League East title that it lost last year.
But he's not going to make a Rollins-like proclamation. Nor is he willing to criticize the All-Star shortstop for publicly stating the confidence that he has in his team.
"It bugged me for a little bit during Spring Training," Jones said. "But having thought about it for a little bit, Jimmy is the leader of that club and different people use different methods to motivate different people on their team. He thought coming out and saying that would come out and motivate his ballclub. It's not a big deal.
"It's not the way I would have done things. But he felt that was what he needed to say."
Right now, the Braves are doing most of their talking with their bats and arms. During the three-game series, they overcame two deficits after the start of the eighth, belted six homers and saw their starting pitchers allow a total of five earned runs in 18 innings.
But if not for the stinginess the bullpen showed during the first two games of this series, the Braves wouldn't have been heading back to Atlanta in such a celebratory mood. Before Thursday's ninth inning, the relief corps had worked 11 innings and allowed just one earned run. In the process, they gave their team a chance to claim consecutive comeback wins to start the season.
The bullpen's statistics were marred a bit during this series' final inning, during which Macay McBride and Chad Paronto managed to walk five of the first seven batters the Phillies sent to the plate. But Rafael Soriano needed just one pitch to retire the potential tying run and limit the ninth-inning damage to two runs.
|"We're pleased with the way we played up here. If we play 162 games like we did up here, we're going to win a lot of games."|
|-- Chipper Jones|
Fortunately for the Braves, they got their offense warmed up immediately, giving starter Chuck James an early advantage. Ryan Howard's throwing error on a potential inning-ending double play extended the first inning long enough for Brian McCann to contribute a two-run single off Adam Eaton.
Eaton's debut for the Phillies would get much uglier in the fifth after he issued a one-out walk to James. Five pitches later, he saw Johnson drill an 0-2 pitch into the right-field seats for a two-run homer. It was the second baseman's first hit since Sept. 28, 2005.
"It was nice to get one up on the board," said Johnson, who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Scott Thorman, whose first hit of the season was the game-winning homer in Wednesday night's 11-inning victory, capped the six-run fifth with a two-run double off Joe Bisenius, who came on to relieve Eaton, who was charged with eight runs -- seven earned runs -- and seven hits in just 4 2/3 innings.
Fortunately, James' season debut was much more pleasing. The crafty young southpaw fell behind a lot of hitters, but still allowed just one hit through the first four innings. Doubles by Chase Utley and Pat Burrell in the fifth accounted for the only run that would be charged against James in his five-inning effort.
"I hit my pitch count pretty early," said James, who threw 54 of his 92 pitches for strikes. "But if I can survive through that weather and give up just one run, I'll take it."
Season fates certainly aren't determined in the first week of the season. The '94 Braves began the season with seven straight wins and still found themselves six games out of first place when a player's strike ended that season in August.
As for the '03 Braves team that won 101 games, they began the season with three straight losses against the Expos.
With this in mind, this series didn't really do much more than provide Atlanta with a promising start to a season that is 159 games away from completion.
But it's certainly a start that gives the Braves added confidence that this season will be different than the last.
"We might have swept [the Phillies]," Jeff Francoeur said. "But they've still got a great team that is very much capable of putting a streak together and winning a bunch of games."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.