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April 28, 2017

Streaking Phillies set to take on two NL titans: 'We're not afraid of anybody'

We interrupt this NFL Draftpalooza Weekend to bring you a piece of information you probably didn’t expect to read with just two days remaining in the month of April: the Phillies are baseball’s hottest team and they’re off to their best start since the 2011 season, when they won a franchise-record 102 games.

Thanks to continuing to find a way to silence Giancarlo Stanton’s scary bat, the Phillies completed a sweep over the Marlins on Thursday to collect their sixth win in a row, matching their longest win streak of the 2016 season. The ’16 win streak also took place at the end of the season’s first month, but there are reasons to be more impressed this time around.

 • Last season, the Phillies were 10-10 through their first 20 games, which was somewhat surprising given that many people expected them to contend for the league’s worst record again. But through those 20 games, the Phils were averaging just 3.3 runs per game and had a -25 run differential. So, they were kind of lucky (5-2 in one-run games).

 • This season, the Phillies are just one game better, at 11-9, but the offense has produced more regularly. The Phillies are averaging 4.75 runs per game (8th best in baseball) and have a +11 run differential (only eight teams better). Even though it’s just one game better from last year’s record through 20 games, they’re playing markedly better baseball.

But now the tricky part: the Phillies begin one of their toughest road trips of the season tonight at Dodger Stadium. Before they return home a week from today, the Phils will take on the two teams that represented the National League in the League Championship Series, the Dodgers (for three games) and the reigning World Champion Cubs (a four-game series at Wrigley Field next week).

“The way we’re playing right now, we’re not afraid of anybody,” Brock Stassi said of that upcoming schedule. “We’ve faced good pitching already, the Mets and the Nats have great pitching staffs, even the Marlins, too. It goes to show we grind out at-bats. (Hitting coach Matt) Stairs is always preaching, 'Get after it,' see some pitches, get their pitch count up. And we’re going to take that same approach into L.A. and Chicago.”

As manager Pete Mackanin fairly pointed out, the Phils did spend the bulk of the first 2 1/2 weeks of the 2017 season taking on two other formidable opponents, the Mets and Nationals. Both were also in the postseason in 2016.

“When we looked at the schedule and saw who we were playing the first two weeks we knew we'd have our work cut out for it,” Mackanin said. “But we've handled it very well. We're going on the road and we have another test on the road. We have two good teams we're going to be facing and we're just going to continue to do what we're doing and hope for the best.”

A few keys to the Phillies early season success:

 • Cesar Hernandez has been a consistent cog atop the lineup. Hernandez’s .360 OBP ranks fifth among regular leadoff hitters in baseball and second to only Washington’s Adam Eaton (.387) in the NL. Hernandez has cooled off some (.269 with 10 strikeouts in his last 26 at-bats) but his .321/.367/.536 slash line still ranks as the fourth best in baseball and second best in the NL (behind Washington’s Daniel Murphy).

 • Aaron Altherr could be forcing the Phillies to consider benching one of their veteran outfielders when Howie Kendrick (oblique, out another two weeks, at least) returns from the disabled list. Since Kendrick landed on the DL, Altherr is batting .400 (10-for-25) with three doubles and a home run while going 2-for-2 in stolen base attempts and playing his usual strong outfield defense, no matter what place you put him in that outfield alignment. Altherr got a regular day off on Thursday but should be back to receiving the bulk of the starts in place of Kendrick on the current road trip.

 • The Phillies have had a closer carousel during the first four weeks of the season, with four different pitchers coming in for save opportunities. But the ‘pen has mostly been a strong spot, especially when you consider their starters have pitched the third-fewest innings in all of baseball. The Phils are 8-0 this season when leading after seven innings and 10-0 when leading after eight innings. In baseball-reference’s “Clutch Stats” split, defining “late and close” situations as "plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying team at least on deck," Phils’ pitchers have held the opponent to a .230 batting average and .303 OBP. Not bad.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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