Lee wins back-to-back starts for first time in 2012

Lee wins back-to-back starts for first time in 2012

Lee wins back-to-back starts for first time in 2012
ATLANTA -- Five weeks ago Sunday the Atlanta Braves swept the Phillies in a critical series at Turner Field.

The Phillies traded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino two days later.

They traded Joe Blanton three days after that.

"It's what I always say about change," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said following Saturday's 5-1 victory over the Braves. "You never know. I've learned -- sometimes you can make changes and you start playing better and you do better. That's kind of how I look at it. It's nothing against the people we traded. It just opened the door for others to get on the field."

The Phillies are in position to sweep the series with a victory Sunday. Cliff Lee, who has had a mixture of terrible luck and uneven performances this year, allowed five hits, one walk and struck out five in seven scoreless innings to pick up the win. He would have pitched longer but he suffered a cramp in his left hamstring and left for precautionary reasons.

Lee has won back-to-back starts for the first time since he won seven consecutive starts from July 30 to Sept. 5, 2011. He has a 1.31 ERA (three earned runs in 20 2/3 innings) in his last three starts.

Lee's fortune finally seems to be turning in his favor.

"I don't really look at it like that," Lee said. "To me, what happened has happened. The only thing I can control is today and preparation. What can I do today to prepare for tomorrow? What's done is done. I'm just going to continue to focus on my routine and get ready for my next start, and go out there and try to execute pitches and be successful."

But it also can be said fortune is turning in the Phillies' favor. They are 27-19 (.587) since the All-Star break, and 19-12 (.613) since the Braves swept them at the end of July. They also are five games under .500 for the first time since June 27.

"I think we've just been playing better, well-rounded baseball," Lee said.

The Phillies are eight games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the second National League Wild Card spot. It is fun to think the Phillies could make a run at it, but the Cardinals are on pace to finish the season 87-75. The Phillies would need to finish 23-6 (.793) just to tie. How difficult would that be? Well, if the Phillies beat the Braves on Sunday, then take two of three in every series the rest of the way, plus sweep the Astros in a four-game series from Sept. 13-16, they would finish 21-8 (.724).

A more realistic goal would be to finish the season with a winning record.

They would need to finish 18-11 (.621) to make that happen.

"We definitely want to finish above .500," Manuel said.

They can do that. They are playing well enough, and five of their remaining nine series are against teams with losing records.

Their chances improve if Lee keeps pitching like this.

They get even better if the offense keeps giving him some help, too.

John Mayberry singled to score a run in the first inning to make it 1-0. Jimmy Rollins hit a solo home run to right field in the third to make it 2-0. Rollins went 3-for-5 and played his typical solid game defensively. Manuel commended him afterward. Rollins and Manuel met Friday about hustling more, and the two seem to be on the same page for now.

Of course, Rollins didn't need to hustle during that home run.

"I told him when he hit his home run, 'I finally figured out how you can get out of not running, and that's by hitting home runs,'" Manuel chuckled. "'You get to jog.' He liked that. He laughed."

Chase Utley's double in the fifth scored Juan Pierre to make it 3-0. Braves right-hander Tim Hudson loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth, walking Lee to force home a run. Another run scored in the inning to give Lee a nice five-run cushion.

"He looked like he enjoyed pitching, didn't he?" Manuel said. "He pitched out of a couple jams. They had two-out jams. That helped. He got a lead and he started feeling like he could get comfortable and pitch the way he wanted to. That's what pitching is all about."

Lee won. The Phillies have a chance to sweep the Braves on Sunday.

Sometimes change can be a good thing.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.