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09/19/10 11:53 AM ET

Braves seek to close NL East gap vs. Phillies

OK, so there is no bona fide Wild Card race in the American League, where the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are merely trying to settle who enters the postseason through the front and side doors.

But the National League is more than making up for that aberration, with a three-pronged melee that enters the brawling stage on Monday, when the Braves and the Phillies climb into the center ring at Citizens Bank Park.

This is a genuine clash, a headbutt of rolling teams: the Phillies cranked up their momentum to seven straight -- and 11 of 12 -- Sunday on Jayson Werth's walk-off homer against the Nationals; the Braves come in off a New York sweep of the Mets, and their first road sweep since May 10-12 in Milwaukee could not have been timed better.

The road-challenged Braves -- they have an away record of 34-41 even after the Citi Field sweep -- have held their own in Philadelphia, where they have split six earlier games.

The teams are separated by only three games in the NL East standings, and the importance of relentlessly pursuing the division title is underscored by a fragile safety net: The runner-up trickles down into a dogfight with the NL West trio of San Diego, San Francisco and Colorado for the Wild Card straw.

The Phillies bring a trio of great pitchers into this series, and the Braves bring great resolve.

Cole Hamels leads off for Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, who has maneuvered his two Roys, Halladay and Oswalt, to follow the lefty.

But Atlanta skipper Bobby Cox has let his regular rotation ride, meaning veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe both took their weekend turns against the Mets. He had planned on Jair Jurrjens starting the first game, followed by Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson, but his plans were altered Monday afternoon when Jurrjens' sore right knee was not deemed well enough for him to start.

Jurrjens tweaked his knee during a bullpen session Friday night, but didn't inform the Braves of the discomfort until Saturday.

So it'll be Brandon Beachy, a 24-year-old with seven Triple-A starts on his resume. He went a combined 5-1 with a 1.73 ERA -- the best ERA posted in the Minor Leagues -- while playing for Triple-A Gwinnett and Double-A Mississippi this year. He was 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA in seven starts after being promoted to Gwinnett.

Beachy, who began the season in Mississippi's bullpen, extended a surprising story line that dates back to the summer of 2008, when the Braves signed him out of the Virginia Valley Summer League and sent him to their Rookie-level affiliate in Danville, Va., to finish the season.

"We have a lot of confidence in him," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "He's done everything we could have asked from him."

Beachy could not have drawn a tougher or hotter adversary. Hamels has allowed only one run in his past 31 1/3 innings and, over a far longer stretch, has a 1.79 ERA in his last 13 starts.

Hamels has managed to win only five of those 13 starts, frustrated by the Phillies' extended -- and long forgotten -- offensive slump. Since the calendar flipped to September, they have scored 108 runs in 18 games.

Braves: Lee picks right moment to shine
Derrek Lee, virtually a non-factor in his first month as a Brave, couldn't have picked a better time to go off, his seventh-inning grand slam keyed Sunday's sweep-enabling win. Lee has had moderate success against the three pitchers the Braves will be facing; he has combined for a .287 average (25-for-87), but has driven in a run only against Oswalt.

Phillies: Rollins return remains uncertain
The irony of the Phils' revival -- and also an indication of their season-long resilience -- is that Jimmy Rollins has missed the past nine games. The shortstop's return from a hamstring strain is up in the air, certainly more than is his value to the team. They are 38-31 without Rollins in the starting lineup -- decent -- but they are a .630 team (51-30) with him in there.

Worth noting
The Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez still leads the NL in batting, but he better watch out -- and no, not for scalding teammate Troy Tulowitzki. Omar Infante went 2-for-4 with a walk Sunday to raise his average to .337, which would be second-best in the league if he had the qualifying plate appearances. But Infante is getting there -- he has 451 PAs, and will need 51 more in the Braves' remaining 12 games to reach the necessary 502.

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