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Braves, Phillies to battle before All-Star Break
NL East already starting to take shape
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PHILADELPHIA - Leading the division for all but one day this season means little to the Philadelphia Phillies at this point.

They're well aware the standings only matter after 162 games.

Still, this weekend's showdown with the Atlanta Braves is important for both teams. The Phillies are 2½ games ahead of Atlanta in the NL East entering their three-game series at Citizens Bank Park, and they'd like to head into the All-Star break with more breathing room.

"This is a big series," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We've just got to go in there and play like we've been playing."

The pitching-rich Phillies have their three All-Star starters lined up to face Atlanta. Roy Halladay (11-3), Cliff Lee (9-6) and Cole Hamels (10-4) will pitch in that order.

The Braves, on the other hand, won't have two of their top three starters. Ace Jair Jurrjens (12-3) and Tim Hudson (8-6) both pitched during Atlanta's four-game sweep of Colorado.

Instead, Brandon Beachy (3-1) goes against Halladay on Friday night, Tommy Hanson (10-4) starts Saturday and Derrick Lowe (5-6) takes the mound Sunday.

"I like competing against the best and they're pretty darn good," Beachy said. "It's a challenge."

The Phillies have the best record in the majors at 55-33, but the Braves (53-36) are determined to stand in the way of a fifth straight division title.

Both clubs have relied on stellar pitching and each has overcome key injuries and an inconsistent offense so far.

Philadelphia is currently without two of its starting five - Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton - and its top three closers - Ryan Madson, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge.

Five-time All-Star Chase Utley was sidelined the first two months and center fielder Shane Victorino and catcher Carlos Ruiz also spent time on the disabled list.

Victorino (thumb) and All-Star third baseman Placido Polanco (back) are both iffy for this series.

The Braves began the season without Jurrjens, and were without Beachy and Hanson at various points.

Outfielders Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth were sidelined earlier in the year, and left fielder Martin Prado is on the DL.

"We're similar in a lot of ways," Manuel said. "If you look at runs scored and hitting, they're a lot like us. They've been doing it mostly with pitching."

Going wire-to-wire isn't the Phillies' style. They've trailed in September in three of the last four years.

Last year, the Braves led the Phillies by 4½ games at the break. They were seven games up on July 22, but Philadelphia went 39-19 the rest of the way and finished six games ahead. Atlanta made the postseason as the wild-card entry.

In 2007, the Phillies overcame a seven-game deficit with 17 remaining and surpassed the New York Mets on the final day to capture their first division title in 14 years.

In 2008, they were 3½ games behind the Mets with 16 to play, before clinching on the next-to-last day of the season and going on to win just the second World Series title in franchise history.

That's why Manuel and his players understand it's too early to get caught up in the standings.

"The season's not over. If you think that, it can backfire on you," Manuel said. "You've got to play every day. We can have injuries, and so far we've been able to get by because our guys emphasize playing that day. We don't look ahead and don't look back. You can have a 10-game lead right now, and that doesn't mean you're going to go to the playoffs. We haven't won nothing. We've been winning some games and we have a good record, but the Braves are right there with us. We ain't done nothing yet, really."

Having blown a lead last year, the Braves won't be overly concerned if the worst-case scenario happens and they get swept this weekend.

"I don't think, this early in the season, you look at it like that," All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "It's a big series. But regardless of the outcome, it's still before the All-Star break.

We're not getting too excited."

The Braves have won five of the nine meetings between the teams this season. They took two of three in Philadelphia in early May, beating Lee and Hamels.

"If you want to get to the top, you've got to beat the best," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "And they've been the best for quite some time. Every time we play them, it's a measuring stick. You play good teams, they expose your weaknesses, so we need to go out and prove to ourselves once again that we can play with them pitch for pitch."

The teams play two series in September, including a three-game set in Atlanta to close out the regular season.

By then, the Phillies hope to have things all wrapped up.


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