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Phillies ride hot bats to road sweep of Braves
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ATLANTA – The heat can do funny things to the mind.

So on a day when the temperature at Turner Field was 90 degrees and climbing at first pitch, you had to wonder: Is this real, or is it some shimmering mirage meant to tease fans who hope for a meaningful summer of baseball in Philadelphia?

The Phillies spent three days in Dixie not only sweeping a three-game series from the Atlanta Braves and knocking them from first place in the National League East (see standings), but also sending a message to their own front office that they shouldn’t be counted for dead in the division race.

At least not yet. (Check back in a few days.)

The Phils completed the sweep Wednesday afternoon with a 10-5 win (see Instant Replay). They had a season-high 18 hits and their improving bullpen pitched three more scoreless innings to finish the series with one run allowed in 11 innings.

Wednesday’s victory was the Phillies’ seventh in the last nine games and though they are still six games under .500, they will be no more than five games out of first place when they open a series in St. Louis on Thursday night.

Is this a mirage?

Or is it a veteran team finally putting together the long-awaited run that vaults it into contention?

“I don’t think we’ve ever really been out of it,” Ryan Howard said. “These are the kinds of games you want to play against division rivals. This is a step in the right direction.”

Howard makes a key point: Divisional play is hugely important for this club right now. The Phils are in the midst of a stretch of 14 out of 18 games against NL East teams with superior records. So far, they are 3-0 in those games. They go out of division the next four games to play the formidable Cardinals, winners of eight of their last 10.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is already fielding calls from teams looking to pick at the Phillies’ carcass.

He will have to wait a little while longer before deciding whether to sell off players or keep the team together in the coming weeks.

“I hope so,” said Marlon Byrd when asked if the Phillies’ recent run of winning baseball was a message to Amaro. “But again, the next series is key. We still have to fight to .500 and we’ve got a long ways to go, especially with four in St. Louis. We have to go in there and make sure we win that series.

“We think about winning, that’s it. Ruben’s going to make the moves he has to. He has his own timeline. Right now, we have to make an easy decision for him as far as keeping guys here. We’ve got to win. He put this team together to get to the playoffs and the only way to do that is by winning.”

It’s tough to get overly excited about what’s going on. Four of the Phillies’ last seven wins have come against the Padres and Cubs, two bad teams. The Phils’ credibility was also damaged in a couple of losses to the Cubs. But this series in Atlanta was one the Phils could hang their hats on a little. Yeah, Atlanta’s offense has been in a big funk, but the Braves were a first-place club when the Phils arrived and the Phils played three pretty good games in sweeping the series. They got good pitching and strong offense, led by Howard, who knocked in six runs in the series.

“His swing looks good,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “He’s right on the ball.”

Howard said he feels some confidence creeping into the Phillies’ bat rack. It showed Wednesday. Starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez blew a 2-0 lead when he allowed four runs in the first inning. That can be very demoralizing for a team, but the Phils didn’t wilt. They came back with six hits and five runs in the second inning. For the day, they had five players get three hits.

Hernandez and the bullpen were able to protect that lead.

“On a day like today, he hung in there and gave us some innings,” Sandberg said. “That was big because there were some guys we wanted to stay away from in the bullpen.”

The Phillies haven’t won four in a row since early June 2013. That’s over a year. If this little run is for real, they will make a good showing against a tough team in St. Louis. If it’s just a mirage then, oh, well, they were three fun days in Atlanta and we return you to your regularly scheduled programming as you wait for Amaro to blow up the team.