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Welcome to Caps Town: Phillies vs. Nationals Series Preview

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The Phillies head to Washington where the fans may or may not realize baseball is being played

MLB: New York Yankees at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Phillies have won three straight series, the assumption is that they will never lose another series the rest of the season. Because that’s how these things work, right?

That theory will be put to the test this weekend as the Phillies travel to Washington - home of the Stanley Cup Champion Capitals. Washington residents may also be aware that their city is home to the Nationals - a baseball team who happens to be half a game ahead of the Phillies for second place in the National League East and the second wild card spot.

The Nationals have a right fielder who is going to be a very high profile free agent this winter. I’m not saying that by winning the series, the Phillies will convince Bryce Harper to join them next season...but it probably wouldn’t hurt their chances either.

The Last Time They Met

When the Phillies visited DC in May, they were one inning away from winning the series. Unfortunately, Hector Neris pitched that final inning and the Phillies did not win the series.

Since Then

The Nats were really hot for a while (20-7 record in May), but have been considerably less hot recently (6-10 in June). They are just 3-7 in their last ten games. If my math is correct, that’s a .300 winning percentage, and that usually isn’t good enough to get a team to the postseason.

Phillies Pitching vs. Nationals Offense

The Nationals’ lineup was supposed to be both very good and centered around Harper. However, they’re currently 12th in the National League in scoring, and I don’t think many people would call that “very good.” While Harper isn’t having a bad season (19 home runs), his .209 batting average might indicate that he’s not quite at the level of true superstars like Lorenzo Cain.

Part of the problem is that the Nats have suffered their fair share of injuries. Both Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick are on the disabled list, which comes as no surprise since those guys are fixtures on the DL. But Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, and Adam Eaton have also missed time.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Washington Nationals
Juan Soto has provided a boost to the Nationals’ offense
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Nats have gotten a boost from rookie Juan Soto who has been excellent since his call up last month. However, the Nats have mostly played weaker teams like the Orioles and Blue Jays since he joined them. Will he be able to continue his hot hitting against the array of pitchers the Phillies have lined up?

First up is Zach Eflin, who has been on a roll. He hasn’t given up more than two earned runs in any of his three starts this month. After that comes Aaron Nola, who is coming off his weakest start of the season. It seems very unlikely that Nola will have two poor starts in a row, especially since he’s had some good success in his career at Nationals Park.

The finale will be handled by Nick Pivetta. Nats fans will remember Pivetta as the guy they traded to get Jonathan Papelbon. And they’ll remember Papelbon as the guy who did this:

The last time Pivetta pitched in Nationals Park, it didn’t go especially well. He’s faced the Nats three times in his career, and each start has gone worse than the one before it. The good news is that his last start was so bad, it would be almost impossible for him to do any worse this time. (Am I tempting fate here?)

The Phillies’ bullpen hasn’t been great lately, but maybe Wednesday’s three shutout innings are a sign that things are turning around. At least thanks to Thursday’s off day, Seranthony Dominguez is well rested, and could conceivably be used in two of the three games.

Nationals Pitching vs. Phillies Offense

With Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera both in the midst of hot streaks, the Phillies’ offense has been clicking lately. They’re third in the National League in OPS over the past week, and have averaged over 5 runs per game during that stretch.

In most cases, you’d think that the Nationals have the type of pitchers who could slow them down. After all, the Nats rotation is headlined by big name pitchers Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. However, for a variety of reasons, the Phillies won’t face any of those guys this weekend. The pitchers they will face are considerably less imposing.

Friday’s starter is Tanner Roark, who is continuing a career-long trend of being a decent mid-rotation starter. Roark has made 16 career starts against the Phillies, and there’s been no real consistency to the results. Sometimes he’s been good, other times he’s been bad, and usually he’s been just okay. Now that I think about it, that last sentence may be a perfect summary of Roark’s career as a whole.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Toronto Blue Jays
Tanner Roark continues to be an okay enough pitcher
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

The final two games will be started by rookies. Erick Fedde gets the ball on Saturday. This will be his seventh career start, and he hasn’t really distinguished himself in any of the previous six. Jefry Rodriguez gets the ball for Sunday night’s ESPN-televised finale. A national spotlight isn’t exactly a low pressure situation for a guy making his second start, especially considering he allowed five earned runs in his first.

The Nats recently gave their bullpen a boost when they acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera. Herrera had been the closer for the Royals, but was moved to a setup role in Washington in favor of incumbent closer Sean Doolittle.

I seem to recall another time when the Nats tried to shore up their bullpen by trading for another team’s closer. How did that go, you ask?

Don’t worry, Bryce. If you come to Philadelphia, I’m pretty sure none of the Phillies’ pitchers will try to choke you! (Well, maybe Jake Arrieta, but that’s probably it.)

Cheer this Man

Ryan Madson is still hanging around in the Nats’ bullpen. He hasn’t been especially good this season, but it’s still nice to see him.

Let’s take a look back at one of the good times when he played for the Phillies:

Can We Handle the Natitude?

Traveling to Washington for a game always brings a unique challenge for the Phillies: Not only do they have to outplay a talented Nationals club, but they also need to find a way to overcome the overwhelming levels of Natitude provided by the home fans.

No other fan base provides quite the level of Natitude that the DC sports fans provide. These people love baseball and continually pack the ballpark to cheer on a team that is bound to actually win a playoff series one of these years.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Washington Nationals
Nationals fans care far more about this than their team
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, I’m joking. Despite being legitimate contenders in every season since 2012, the Nationals have never ranked in the top 10 for MLB attendance. This season, most of the DC sports fans have been so caught up in celebrating the Capitals that they probably don’t even realize that the Nats’ season has begun.

Maybe they’ll start heading to the ballpark in September so that they can say their goodbyes to Harper before he inevitably leaves town in search of more passionate fans and a team that can make it past the first round of the playoffs. (In reality, since he’s a Scott Boras client, he will most likely choose the team that offers him the most money. But that could totally be the Phillies!)

Prediction

Just like “tails never fails” when calling a coin flip, picking the Phillies to win two out of three never goes wrong either. I’d call for a sweep, but I have a suspicion that the power of Natitude will lift the Nationals, allowing them to salvage one game in the series.