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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

NL East rivals drifting apart in more ways than one


PHILADELPHIA -- They share a division.

Technically, they're sharing a pennant race.

So why do the Phillies and Braves seem to exist right now in separate universes?

Braves rookie Brandon Beachy does well in his major-league debut, but he can't beat Cole Hamels and Philly. (US Presswire)  
Braves rookie Brandon Beachy does well in his major-league debut, but he can't beat Cole Hamels and Philly. (US Presswire)  
In one -- call it Phillies World -- an ace starts every game, September means never losing and the questions all relate to how things will set up in October.

In the other -- that would be Braves World -- the first game in the most important series of the season is started by a guy whose previous biggest game ever was for the Indiana state high school championship. Oh, and he was a third baseman then.

In Braves World, the National League East race goes on, but the total focus is on getting to October, somehow, some way.

As manager Bobby Cox admitted Monday afternoon, "You want to win the division, but it doesn't make any difference at all, as long as you're in."

In the playoffs, he meant, and while here in Philadelphia they're talking about the Phillies' four-game division lead with 11 games to play -- and with Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt the scheduled starters on Tuesday and Wednesday, after Cole Hamels' 3-1 win on Monday -- the much more significant number for the Braves is two.

As in the two-game lead they still hold in the NL wild-card race.

Maybe the Braves can still make the race for the division crown interesting. Maybe we'll see something the next two nights that changes everything.

But for now, we're still asking how the Phillies will do once the postseason begins (the bet is they'll do well), at the same time that we're asking whether the Braves will be in the postseason at all (you'd still have to say they have a better-than-average chance).

We're asking whether Hamels and closer Brad Lidge are the same pitchers they were last year (quite obviously, they aren't), while at the same time we're asking where Monday night Braves starter Brandon Beachy was last week (in Florida, in instructional league).

Hamels, a one-time first-round draft pick with a $2 million signing bonus and now a $20.5 million contract, looks even better than he did in 2008, when he won the first game of every postseason series and was named the World Series MVP. He's 5-0 in his last five starts, with a 0.49 ERA.

More on Braves at Phillies

Beachy, who went undrafted and then signed for $20,000 out of a college summer league, also had a fine 2010 season -- in Double-A and Triple-A. He's a great story, looks to be a great find ... and he found his way into this pennant race (or wild-card race) only because the Braves were kind of desperate.

Two things had to happen for Beachy to start Monday. First, Jair Jurrjens had to hurt his right knee, which he did during a bullpen session last Friday in New York. Second, the Braves had to have no confidence at all in Kenshin Kawakami, who started regularly for them in the first half of the season but wasn't really considered for this assignment.

In the end, Beachy wasn't that bad. He had the Braves in a 1-1 tie through four innings, before Jason Heyward was unable to deal with a Shane Victorino fly ball, leading to the two unearned runs that ended up giving the Phillies the win.

"I thought he pitched great," catcher Brian McCann said. "We couldn't have asked for anything more."

"He did everything you could ask," left fielder Matt Diaz agreed. "Unfortunately, it was the song of our September. We didn't score enough runs for him."

The Braves' September so far has included just 69 runs in 19 games, leading to a 9-10 record. They had a three-game lead over the Phillies when the month began, but three weeks later the Phillies lead by four in a division race that is starting to feel over.

The Braves had a meeting last Friday, and talked about simply playing their game and not worrying about anyone else. But how easy can that be, when that anyone else never loses.

The Phillies are now 16-3 in September.

"It has to make [a rival team] feel like no matter how good you play, it almost doesn't matter," Lidge said. "The Braves still have a good shot to be in the playoffs, but we want to do what we can to win the division and get the home field."

Home-field advantage is nice, but right now the Phillies have a much bigger advantage -- the three-ace advantage. They've won each of the last 11 games started by Hamels, Halladay or Oswalt, and 22 of the 29 games one of their Big Three has started since the July 29 trade that brought Oswalt here from Houston.

They have Halladay and Oswalt set to start the next two nights, while the Braves have Mike Minor (a year younger than Beachy, but with seven more games of big-league experience) and Tommy Hanson (a week older than Beachy, but with 52 games of big-league experience).

But it really isn't about age. Beachy and Hanson are both 24 years old. Hamels was 24 when he was pitching in the World Series.

The difference, of course, is that there was little doubt Hamels was ready for it then. There was plenty of wonder whether Beachy was ready for this now.

"I think he probably wished it was April," Hamels said. "That's a very tough situation, but he did a real good job."

Beachy did a fine job, in Braves World. He kept the Braves in the game for as long as he was in it, and you can't say they lost Monday because of him.

In Phillies World, Hamels went eight innings, allowed one run, and was the biggest reason Philadelphia won this game. And, along with Halladay and Oswalt, he's the biggest reason that the Phillies have become the strong favorite to defend their National League title and maybe win the World Series for the second time in three years.

The worlds are different, vastly different.

Right now, all that the Braves and Phillies share is a division.


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