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PHI@ATL: Howard puts Phils up early with two-run shot

ATLANTA -- The Phillies are entering a strange area.

They have won six of their last eight games following Tuesday night's 5-2 victory over the Braves at Turner Field. They can sweep the series with a victory Wednesday afternoon before continuing their seven-game road trip Thursday in St. Louis.

The Phillies are just 31-38, but they are only five games out of first place in the National League East.

"There's something to that, moving up," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said about the division standings. "It's also about continuing to play good baseball and continuing to do what we've done the last two games."

How should the Phillies front office look at it? Is it a team within striking distance of the division lead, or a team seven games under .500 that has not won four consecutive games in more than a year? They are both, so what do the Phillies do? Buy? Sell? Stand pat? Fortunately, the Phillies have 39 more games to play before the July 31 Trade Deadline, so there is plenty of time for the players to decide which way the front office should go.

But the Phillies, who moved out of last place for the first time since May 26, entered Tuesday with a plus-18 run differential since June 5, which is the second-best mark in baseball. The bullpen has been pitching remarkably well lately. It entered Tuesday with a 2-0 record and a 1.39 ERA since June 2, allowing only 19 hits, five earned runs, five walks and striking out 39 in 32 1/3 innings.

"We know where we're at," Kyle Kendrick said. "Shoot, we're still in it."

Holes certainly remain on the roster, but a shored up and productive bullpen would help the Phillies immensely moving forward.

Of course, so would improved starting pitching.

Kendrick allowed six hits, two runs, one walk and struck out six in seven innings Tuesday to pick up the win. He had allowed 15 runs in the first inning in his first 13 starts this season, including at least a run in seven of the last eight, but he halted that trend Tuesday. Kendrick struck out Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton on six pitches to start his night. Freddie Freeman doubled with two outs, but Justin Upton grounded out to end the inning.

"I changed up some things," Kendrick said of his first-inning success. "I just warmed up a little earlier. I sat down for about 10-15 minutes and warmed up again. It could have been the weather. I always enjoy pitching here. I was pretty loose early."

Kendrick held the 2-0 lead Ryan Howard handed him in the top of the first when he hit a two-run homer to left field against Braves right-hander Ervin Santana. It was Howard's second homer in the series and 13th of the season.

"You're just trying to find some real estate and a good pitch to hit, and I was fortunate to do that and the ball landed on the other side of the fence to give us a lead," Howard said.

The Phillies are 8-5 when Howard homers this season.

"He's still a very, very dangerous, very productive hitter," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of a first-inning conversation he was having with his coaches before Howard's at-bat. "And then two pitches later, the ball goes out of the ballpark. I think he's still a scary hitter."

The Phillies took a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning. The Braves scored a run in the fifth, but Kendrick kept them at bay. He had runners at the corners with no outs in the seventh, but after a mound visit from pitching coach Bob McClure, he got Gerald Laird to hit into a double play and struck out Jordan Schafer swinging to end the inning with only one run scoring.

Kendrick pointed into the dugout after the double play.

"[McClure] just came out and said, 'Get a double play here,'" Kendrick said. "First pitch, double play. I just kind of gave him a, 'There you go.'"

Kendrick pitches particularly well against the Braves, going 4-2 with a 3.34 ERA in 16 career starts against Atlanta and 3-0 with a 2.49 ERA in seven starts at Turner Field. Right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who has a 2.77 ERA in two career starts against the Braves, pitches in the series finale Wednesday.

A sweep would be huge.

"Everybody's smiling and happy," third baseman Reid Brignac said. "Winning changes things and I feel like we've just got to keep doing that."

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