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Three things to watch in the Braves’ upcoming series against the Phillies

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Atlanta looks to move closer to a fourth straight division title

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves return home for the final homestand of the 2021 regular season and will be looking to lock up their fourth straight NL East crown. The Braves just completed a 7-3 road trip, not counting a 6-5 loss to the Padres in a suspended game that started all the way back on July 21. Atlanta has won three straight, but are just 7-9 in the head-to-head series with the Phillies this season. Philadelphia comes into the series having won seven of ten and went 5-2 on their final homestand of the season. The Phillies are 34-41 on the road while the Braves are 37-37 at Truist Park. Here are three things to keep an eye on in the series.

Division Race

The Braves’ magic number is five, and they can clinch the division outright with a sweep. A series win for Atlanta would put the Phillies in a situation where they need to win out and have the Braves lose their final four games against the Mets and the Rockies. Anything less than that and Atlanta would still have some work to do over the final four games.

Atlanta’s one-run game struggles

A quick glance at the standings shows that the Braves are the only NL East team with a positive run differential at +121. The Phillies, on the other hand will enter the series at minus-5. Per Baseball Reference, Atlanta’s expected win/loss record is 90-65. For context, the Milwaukee Brewers have a run differential of +130 and are 94-62 and have clinched the NL Central.

One of the biggest reasons for this discrepancy has to do with Atlanta’s struggles in one-run games. The Braves are just 24-30 in one-run outcomes. The Phillies on the other hand, are 30-23. So that will be something to keep an eye on as this series unfolds. Unsurprisingly, half of the games these two teams have played so far have been one-run games, and the Braves have lost six of eight. (They’re 2-6 in one-run games against the Phillies, and 5-3 otherwise.)

Bryce Harper’s monster second half

One reason the Phillies have been able to stay in the race has been due to a monster second half by Bryce Harper. Since August 1, Harper leads MLB with 3.6 fWAR. He is hitting .341/.473/.767 with 18 home runs and a 210 wRC+. His ISO during that span is a ridiculous .426. That surge has maybe made him the favorite to take home the MVP award in the National League.

Harper is hitting .228/.371/.439 with three home runs in 70 plate appearances against Atlanta this season, but the Braves will want to be extra careful with him this week.

Tuesday, September 28, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)

Zack Wheeler (31 GS, 206.1 IP, 29.2 K%, 5.5 BB%, 2.79 ERA, 2.62 FIP)

Zack Wheeler will get the start in Tuesday’s opener and will be looking to finish off a monster campaign that’s netted him 6.9 fWAR to date, second only to Corbin Burnes among hurlers. Wheeler has allowed a total of three runs over 23 2/3 innings in September (four starts). He has allowed just 18 hits and has 32 strikeouts during that span. He has been tough on the Braves in four starts this season, allowing just four runs while striking out 34 in 26 2/3 innings. He’s dominated them three times but got knocked around by them in his only start in Atlanta this season.

Charlie Morton (31 GS, 176.0 IP, 28.2 K%, 7.8 BB%, 3.53 ERA, 3.28 FIP)

Monday’s off day allowed the Braves to juggle their rotation where Charlie Morton would line up for two more starts this season if needed. Morton will start Tuesday’s opener against the Phillies and would be in line to start Sunday’s series finale against the Mets. Morton allowed five hits and three runs over six innings in his last start in Arizona. He has faced the Phillies four times in 2021 and has allowed six earned runs over 17 2/3 innings. He was destroyed by them in May, retiring just two of the seven batters he faced, but has been fine-if-not-great otherwise.

Wednesday, September 29, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)

Aaron Nola (31 GS, 174.2 IP, 30.3 K%, 5.1 BB%, 4.64 ERA, 3.38 FIP)

Aaron Nola will get the call for the Phillies in the second game of the series. Nola has had an up and down season for Philadelphia and has “struggled” of late with a 6.58 ERA in five September starts, though, as has been the case for him all year, his peripherals are solid-to-great (including in September) but the results just aren’t coming. He is coming of a rough performance last time out where he allowed six hits and six runs over six innings against the Pirates. Nola will be making his fifth start of the season against Atlanta and has allowed 22 hits and 12 runs in 24 1/3 innings. He’s had a dominant outing against them, gotten hit hard a couple of times, and had a couple of so-so outings as well.

Max Fried (27 GS, 158.2 IP, 23.7 K%, 6.4 BB%, 3.12 ERA, 3.38 FIP)

There has been a lot of key performances during Atlanta’s second half surge to the top of the NL East standings, but perhaps none were more important that Max Fried. Fried is coming off of a complete game shutout Maddux of the Padres in which he allowed just three hits and struck out four. He has allowed just six runs in five September starts and has logged at least six innings in 11 straight starts. Fried has faced the Phillies twice this season allowing 12 hits and six runs in 10 innings. Fried would be in line to start again Monday in a make-up game against the Rockies if necessary.

Thursday, September 30, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)

Kyle Gibson (30 G, 29 GS, 177.2 IP, 20.1 K%, 8.5 BB%, 3.60 ERA, 3.77 FIP)

Kyle Gibson will get the start for the Phillies in Thursday’s series finale. Philadelphia picked up Gibson along with closer Ian Kennedy and righty Hans Crouse in a Trade Deadline deal with the Rangers. After pitching well in August, Gibson hasn’t been as effective in September where he has allowed 30 hits and 22 runs in 27 2/3 innings. Like Nola, his peripherals are actually pretty great in September, but small samples and various shenanigans (including a strand rate of around 50 percent) can ruin anyone’s line. He allowed three hits and four runs over six innings in his last start against the Pirates.

Ian Anderson (23 GS, 122.1 IP, 23.9 K%, 9.8 BB%, 3.60 ERA, 4.01 FIP)

Ian Anderson is scheduled to make his sixth start since returning from the Injured List due to a shoulder issue. He pitched well in his last outing, allowing two hits, one run and striking out eight over seven innings in a win over the Diamondbacks. He, however has experienced a velocity drop since returning. That is another reason that juggling the rotation made sense, as Anderson will now have seven days between starts. Anderson has made four starts against the Phillies this season, allowing eight runs over 23 1/3 innings, including one dominant outing and three other mediocre ones.