ST. LOUIS — The Phillies have been chasing the first-place Atlanta Braves all month in the National League East standings and never has the deficit been more than 1½ games.
That is the difference between the two teams as they get set to open their fourth series of the still young season Monday night in Philadelphia.
It is perhaps the biggest series the Phillies have hosted at Citizens Bank Park since the days of Jimmy, Chase, Ryan, Cole, Big Chuck and 257 straight sellouts.
“It should be fun,” said pitcher Jake Arrieta, who grew accustomed to playing in big series during his time with the Chicago Cubs.
The Phillies are expecting crowds between 22,000 and 27,000 for the series.
A good showing over the next three days and those crowds will grow.
“We’re prepared and focused,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “There is a lot of adrenaline going into that series. We feel like we match up very well against them and more than anything else we’re not going to get outworked or prepared.
“We always want to see our home fans out there supporting us and since the beginning of the season since we first stepped foot in CBP, we’ve had that support and we expect nothing less going forward.”
The Phillies have had several chances in the last week to overtake the Braves in the standings. Each time the Braves have stumbled, the Phillies have stumbled. The Phils entered Sunday’s game against the Cardinals a half-game behind the Braves. The Phillies lost and the Braves rallied for six runs in the ninth to beat Miami.
So far this season, the Braves have been the Phillies’ nemesis. Atlanta has won six of the nine meetings. The Phillies have built much of their 26-18 record by going 18-4 against teams from outside the NL East. Meanwhile, against the division, they are just 8-14. That will have to change if the Phillies want to stay in the race.
The Phils have hit just .210 as a team in nine games against Atlanta this season and averaged just 3.3 runs per game. Phillies pitching has a 5.47 ERA against the Braves.
“We haven’t necessarily played the Braves all that well this year,” Arrieta said. “You just have to learn from that.
“It all comes down to how well your starter pitches that day. If you come out and give up four in the first — I’m not saying you can’t win that game but it makes it a lot more difficult. So the emphasis has to be on starting pitching, especially early in the game to set the tone. You put two or three zeroes up there in the first few innings and you can start to control the ball game. We take pride in setting the tone and keeping the game close.”
Arrieta gave the series its proper importance but mixed in some perspective.
“They’re all big,” he said. “It can come down to the last game of the season whether you get in the playoffs, so they’re all big, especially in the division.”
The Phils have not had a winning season since 2011, the last time they made the playoffs. Last year, they went 66-96.
Arrieta is not surprised the Phils, with one of the majors’ youngest rosters, have gotten off to such a good start this season.
“I think our young guys know it, but at the same time, I think they’re somewhat oblivious to it, which is a good thing,” he said. “You don’t want to look at the standings every single day. Sometimes it’s good to evaluate your season month by month. Try to have a winning month, turn the page. I think that’s the measure of a good team. Have a winning April, have a winning May and at the end of the year, you look up and you’re 25 games over .500.
“We have to put the standings out of sight, out of mind and focus on preparing, executing quality pitches, having good at-bats and winning that day. Let the wins stack up and assess at end of the month.”
Though there is a lot of season left — and the Nationals have only begun to awaken — the Phils could sure use some wins against Atlanta.
The biggest series at Citizens Bank Park since the Glory Days begins Monday night.
Here are the pitching matchups for the series:
Monday night – RHP Nick Pivetta (3-2, 3.72) vs. RHP Mike Foltynewicz (3-2, 2.87)
Tuesday night – RHP Vince Velasquez (4-4, 4.37) vs. RHP Brandon McCarthy (4-2, 5.05)
Wednesday night – RHP Jake Arrieta (3-2, 2.82) vs. LHP Luiz Gohara (0-0, 1.29)