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Series Preview/Discussion: Nationals at Phillies, Aug. 15-18

Aug. 15: Nationals 6, Phillies 3 WP: Livan Hernandez (14-5) LP: Brett Myers (10-6)
Aug. 16: (PPD--rescheduled for 8/18)
Aug. 17: Nationals 3, Phillies 4 WP: Jon Lieber (12-10) LP: Esteban Loaiza (7-9)
Aug. 18: Nationals 1, Phillies 2 WP: Vicente Padilla (6-11) LP: Tony Armas Jr. (7-6)
Aug. 18: Nationals 5, Phillies 4 WP: Luis Ayala (8-6) LP: Ugueth Urbina (3-1)

Overview/Recent History
The Phillies have won five of their nine games against the Nationals so far this season. And it's not a stretch to argue that the two most recent games in the series, just before the all-star break, were something of a turning point for both clubs. After Washington took the series opener by an 8-7 score on Friday night, July 9, dropping the Phillies below .500 at 43-44 and 9.5 games between the Nationals, the Phils rallied for one-run walkoff wins on Saturday and Sunday to hit the break with a bit of momentum. Since July 9, the Phillies are 20-11; Washington is 10-21, and that's including the Nats' sweep of Colorado this past weekend.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Even in June, when the Nationals were the best story in baseball, their offense wasn't exactly intimidating. First baseman (and Larry Bowa nephew) Nick Johnson is probably Washington's best hitter, with a .315 average, 11 homers and .947 OPS. Outfielders Jose Guillen and Preston Wilson are the other power threats, with 21 and 19 homers respectively, and second baseman Jose Vidro and catcher Brian Schneider provide above-average production for their positions. Though centerfielder Brad Wilkerson doesn't have great overall numbers, he badly abuses the Phillies: for the season, he's 18 for 39 (.462) with two homers and a 1.56 OPS against the Phils. But the left side of the Washington infield is effectively an offense-free zone: third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman are struggling through terrible seasons, with Guzman's campaign (.190 average, .503 OPS in 330 at-bats) among the worst by a regular in major-league history. Washington's 461 runs scored ranks dead last in the NL, as does its .712 OPS, 87 home runs, .253 average and .388 slugging percentage. With Johnson and Vidro healthy, Wilson on hand after coming over in a trade last month, and manager Frank Robinson occasionally sitting Guzman, the Nats lineup is probably a bit better than those numbers.

Pitching has been Washington's strength this season. The Nats' 3.72 staff ERA is third-best in the NL. The rotation--led by innings horse Livan Hernandez and the rejuvenated John Patterson, whom the Phils will miss this week--powered the team to its big early division lead, though injuries and roster turnover have necessitated some changes over the course of the year. Closer Chad Cordero has been superb as well, with 38 saves and a 1.05 ERA this year: setup men Luis Ayala, Hector Carrasco and Gary Majewski have all succeeded despite noticeably low strikeout rates (5.63, 4.50, 4.74 K/9 respectively). Whether that's luck, a sign that Robinson is getting the most out of his matchups, or a bit of both, we leave to the reader's discernment.  

Nationals Regulars
C Brian Schneider
1B Nick Johnson
2B Jose Vidro
SS Cristian Guzman
3B Vinny Castilla
RF Jose Guillen
CF Brad Wilkerson
LF Preston Wilson