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09/18/10 6:15 PM ET

Phils' fourth fiddle gets chance to sweep Nats

For the Phillies to claim their seventh consecutive win on Sunday vs. the Nationals, they'll need a sharp outing from a starter outside the vaunted Big Three of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

Joe Blanton, the Phillies' fourth starter, has quietly pieced together a fine second half, posting a 4-1 record and a 3.50 ERA since the All-Star break.

Blanton's ascent has given the Phillies four starters ranging from extraordinary to above-average, which, coupled with the awakening of their previously sluggish lineup, has contributed to Philly's rise to first place in the National League East. Blanton has allowed fewer than three runs in five of his past six starts, the lone blip coming at the hitter-friendly Coors Field on Sept. 2.

The alignment of Blanton's start on Sunday is especially valuable because he offers the Phils a strong chance of closing out a potential sweep of the Nationals while the aforementioned Big Three bear down for their respective starts in a crucial three-game series against the second-place Braves, commencing on Monday at Citizens Bank Park.

In his previous outing, on Monday against the Marlins, Blanton allowed one run over six innings, fanned eight and picked up his seventh win. The Phils trounced the Fish that night, scoring 11 runs (including four homers), and Blanton was appreciative of the support.

"It gives you a lot of wiggle room," Blanton said. "It gives you an opportunity to be really, really aggressive out there."

Among those who regularly provide Blanton with that valuable wiggle room is slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, who roped his 30th tater on Saturday night, marking the fifth consecutive season in which he's hit at least 30 homers and netted 100 RBIs.

Looking to halt the Phillies' hot streak and avert a sweep, the Nationals will send rookie Yunesky Maya to the hill. If the pattern from the right-hander's first two career outings holds true, he'll have to be on high alert in the third inning.

In his debut against the Mets, Maya pitched five innings and allowed five runs, three of which he surrendered in the opening frame. In his next start, on Monday against the Braves, Maya went six innings and allowed four runs, all of which came in the second inning.

Composure has been a minor concern for Maya in his brief big league career, as he committed balks with only one pitch sandwiched between them during the rocky inning against Atlanta.

"No explanation needed [from the umpires]," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He balked. He just flinched at little bit. There was a little indecision, and instead of stepping off, he balked."

With teammate Joel Peralta interpreting, Maya said he "rushed" and balked because he "couldn't see the signs."

Maya has struggled with runners on base, saying he's been "trying to spot the ball and missing pitches" while "rushing to make everything perfect."

Nationals: Hot cornering the silver market?
Ryan Zimmerman, the 2009 National League Silver Slugger Award winner at third base, had a four-hit game on Friday night, the seventh of his career and first in 2010. He drove home the Nationals' lone run with a first-inning single. Zimmerman is making a late push for his second consecutive Silver Slugger, going 13-for-27 in his past eight games.

Phillies: See you in September
Over the past four seasons (2007-10), the Phillies have the best winning percentage (.650) in the Major Leagues in the month of September with a record of 65-35. The Rockies, who are mounting an impressive final month this season, are next with a record of 61-35 (.635). The Phillies have won 17 games in each of the past three Septembers, and may very well surpass that figure in 2010, with 14 wins in the month through Saturday's action.

Worth noting
After dropping his first start with the Phillies, Oswalt has gone 7-0 in his past nine outings to lower his ERA with his new club to 1.94. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Oswalt's ERA is the lowest for any pitcher through his first 10 starts with the Phillies since Jim Bunning had a 1.86 ERA in 1964. Additionally, Oswalt tallied an RBI on Friday night vs. the Nats. According to Elias, Oswalt has a career record of 18-1 in games in which he's driven in a run. ... The Class A Potomac Nationals clinched the Carolina League title, claiming the Mills Cup with a 2-1 win over Winston-Salem on Friday. The championship marks the second in three season for the P-Nats.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.