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Series preview: Nationals at Phillies

The Phillies begin the end of the first half tonight in their final series before the All-Star break. It is a time we are reminded that baseball is a forever sport, meant to destroy us slowly, but entirely.

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies (41-51): A sad troop of 25 players finding themselves with an odd sort of momentum, having completed a four-game sweep of the first place Brewers just before the ticking clock of the All-Star break blares its klaxons. Nobody's fooled, though. The wise folk give this team one hot streak a year to pull off a miraculous comeback. Any subsequent success, however impressive, can be generally considered a fluke.

The Nationals (49-41): Disparity has set in in the NL East. What was once a frantic rat infestation with teams clawing, cannibalizing and climbing over each other to reach a top spot separated from the bottom by only four or five rat carcasses is now a somewhat more peaceful, if still rat-like, situation. Washington is dueling with the Braves for first place, but their margin has grown in the last few weeks to 5.5 games over the third place Mets and 9 over the Phillies, going and 17-11 through a streaky June and winning five of eight thus far in July.

A frightening cloud of injury bugs seems to be settling on the Nats, as Ian Desmond left last night's game in Baltimore with a thumb injury, and in the last at-bat of the game, Jayson Werth stepped out to nurse a sore foot and appeal to C.B. Bucknor for sympathy. Bucknor had a brief flashback to himself as a child in a tiny umpire's uniform - the mask still too big and needing constant adjustment - as his father berated him to stop complaining about his sore foot, and to get back behind the plate and uphold his family's proud tradition of screwing everything up by being terrible umpires. Bucknor shook off the memory and ordered Werth back in the batter's box.

Richard Justice pompously rattled off a list of Nationals notes he'd found on the internet, something he still believes only he has access to:

Desmond celebrated that errorless streak with jubilant errant throw last night.

Heavy Hitters

Anthony Rendon (.285, .830 OPS, 13 HR, 52 RBI)

Rendon recently succeeded where Chase Utley failed in not making the All-Star team. This has Nationals fans joining Marlins and Rockies fans in their self-righteous, epically pointless struggle to complain about the NL Final All-Star Vote until Bud Selig realizes that their player was better and has Anthony Rizzo secretly killed.

Jayson Werth (.278, .788 OPS, 10 HR, 47 RBI)

Werth tuned up Orioles pitching last night with a cataclysmic home run that almost got the Nationals a respite from the early inning tomfoolery that put them behind by four runs. He also struck out three times.

Adam LaRoche (.289, .867 OPS, 12 HR, 47 RBI)

Chase Utley (.294, .804 OPS, 8 HR, 46 RBI)

Utley's All-Star selection came amid a paltry stretch at the plate, but his numbers from his hot start were high enough to sustain his disguise. In the past week, however, he's 8-for-18 with two home runs, six RBI, a stolen base, and three walks.

Marlon Byrd (.261, .794 OPS, 18 HR, 52 RBI)

The better Byrd looks, the higher the Phillies can sell him.

Probable Starters

Friday, July 12: Jordan Zimmermann/A.J. Burnett

Saturday, July 13: Stephen Strasburg/Cole Hamels

Sunday, July 14: Tanner Roark/Kyle Kendrick

Is it seriously already time for another Kendrick start? No, I know; he's great. But man, is he terrible. There will be an odd sense of nostalgia when he is traded, knowing another whipping boy will have to be selected from the roster and knowing that they will in no way fill the role as accurately as KK always did.

The main thing is that like most Phillies players, any one of these pitchers could be gone by the end of the month, with varying degrees of likelihood. Therefore, a main theme among them is how well they are going to do leading up to the trade deadline. Will they make themselves more or less appealing to other teams? A nice thing here is that contending in the second half often blinds a team's front office as they enter a state of slobbering delirium, unable to see that yes, maybe Kyle Kendrick threw two solid starts in a row, but he also accidentally ate his own hat during the third one and needs a few minutes between every pitch to cough up part of the bill.

His counterpart on Sunday afternoon will the Nationals' Kyle Kendrick, Tanner Roark, who was given two chances to beat the Cubs earlier in the month and failed spectacularly both times.

A.J. Burnett is the most likely Phillies starter to be traded, most likely back to where he came from in Pittsburgh. There's not much to say about Burnett; he was as advertised: a 37-year-old version of a walk-first, ask questions later starter with the skill to get himself out of trouble, sometimes. He'll start tonight like a good soldier against sole Nats All-Star Jordan Zimmermann, who is currently just so darn mad that none of his teammates are going with him.

"The delight the players felt for Jordan Zimmermann lasted momentarily. It ceded first to surprise, then to confusion, and by evening it had hardened into anger that no one else in the room was guaranteed to join Zimmermann in Minnesota on July 15."

--Adam Kilgore, Washington Post

Strasburg, too, shook his sad little head at Nationals fans this past week while mumbling something passive aggressive about Orioles fans taking over Nationals Park. He's also been working on getting out of his own head. Little Stevey's going through a lot right now, okay?! He also leads the NL in strikeouts (140) and is in general having a great year.

But he'll face Cole Hamels, who could be on the Yankees by then. That'll be weird! How's Cole going to be on two teams at once?! Ha ha ha! You're crazy, Cole! This is fun. This is great and fun.

Editor's Note: SB Nation's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $18,000 Fantasy Baseball league for tonight's MLB games. It's $2 to join and first prize is $2,000. Jump in now. Here's the FanDuel link.