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Some Powerhouse: Phillies vs. Nationals Preview

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The slumping Washington Nationals come to Philadelphia for a four-game series

MLB: Washington Nationals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies’ schedule in June has been difficult, but the team has done an admirable job of surviving the gauntlet. Now, one last challenge awaits...or so we thought.

The Nationals are next on the schedule. Before the season began, the Nats were expected to easily win the National League East, but they haven’t lived up to those expectations so far. Thanks to an 8-12 record in June, they’ve fallen to third place, a game behind the Phillies.

The Phillies won the series when the teams played in Washington last weekend. Now that the action shifts to Philadelphia, do the Nats have any hope of improvement? Can the Phillies take advantage of this opportunity to put some extra distance between them?

The Last Time They Met

When these teams clashed last weekend, the Phillies won the first two games, and looked to be on their way to winning the third. Unfortunately, the bullpen did as it often does, and allowed the Nationals to salvage a win in the finale.

And Since Then?

The Nationals played a two-game set against the Rays and didn’t score a run in either game. (For those readers who aren’t good at drawing logical conclusions, that means that they lost both games.) Oddly, that makes the Nationals the Phillies’ second straight opponent who is coming off of a sweep by the Rays.

Phillies Pitching vs. Nationals Offense

The biggest culprit in the Nationals’ June swoon has been their offense. They rank 28th in the majors in runs scored for the month. The two most disappointing players in the lineup have been Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. It seems that the pressure of impending free agency might be getting to Harper, and Murphy hasn’t hit the ground running after his stint on the disabled list. (Yeah, he had a big hit against the Phillies bullpen, but who hasn’t?)

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals
This hit aside, Daniel Murphy has struggled in 2018
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When they faced the Phillies, the Nats hitters were largely held in check until they had a little bit of success against the bullpen in the finale. Considering the Phillies just faced perhaps the best lineup in baseball, dealing with the likes of Wilmer Difo and Pedro Severino shouldn’t seem all that tough.

The Nats won’t get to ease in to the series as Aaron Nola pitches the opener. When he last faced them, he had a shaky first inning, but was dominant afterwards. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start against the Nats since 2016.

Nick Pivetta gets the ball on Friday, and the former Nats farmhand (do I need to once again mention that he was traded in exchange for Bryce Harper-choking Jonathan Papelbon?) was in line for a win last weekend before the bullpen ruined it for him.

Vince Velasquez goes on Saturday. The Nationals missed him last weekend, but he had a strong start against them in May. He’s also coming off a solid start against the Yankees, a team who - unlike the Nationals - has a very good lineup.

The finale goes to Jake Arrieta, and much like the Nationals, he’ll probably be very happy to see the month of June end. He had a poor month, and for some reason, the Phillies’ defense seems to save its worst games for when he is on the mound.

As for the bullpen, it’s...a work in progress. On the bright side, Hector Neris has had two strong outings since his banishment to the minor leagues. If he can become a reliable arm again, that will make things much tougher on opponents.

Nationals Pitching vs. Phillies Offense

The Phillies offense didn’t have its best series against the Yankees, managing a total of five runs over the three games. Wednesday night did offer some promising signs. Rhys Hoskins hit a three-run homer, and they likely would have scored more runs if not for some excellent defensive plays by the Yankees.

For the second straight weekend, the Phillies will face the Nationals and not have to deal with Max Scherzer. The Nationals have chosen not to disrupt their rotation and give their ace an extra day of rest. At least that’s what they’re claiming. It seems much more likely that Scherzer is ducking the Phillies’ offense, and I can’t really blame him.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Tampa Bay Rays
Is Max Scherzer ducking the Phillies?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So who will the Phillies face instead? First up is Tanner Roark, who the Phillies thoroughly worked over last week. Next comes rookie Erick Fedde who also suffered a loss in that series.

On Saturday, the Phillies get to face an old friend in the form of Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson is coming off a stay on the disabled list, so there’s a good chance he won’t be able to pitch deep into the game. Then again, considering he hasn’t lasted past the sixth inning in any start this season, that was pretty much a guarantee even if he wasn’t hurt.

The finale will handled by another familiar face (and what a face it is) in Gio Gonzalez. Gonzalez has had a lot of success against the Phillies in his career, but he’s coming off a start where the Rays shelled him for six runs in one inning. I wonder just how high his confidence is at this point.

The Nationals thought they shored up their bullpen when they acquired Kelvin Herrera. It’s possible that he has made them better, but they’ve had so few save opportunities lately that it hasn’t really shown.

Boo This Man

With the Nationals in town, will the Phillies do anything to honor Jayson Werth now that he’s officially retired? If it happens, I guess that he’d receive mostly cheers with a smattering of boos mixed in.

It’s been forgotten that Werth actually received a positive reaction from the fans in his first visit back to Philadelphia. The animosity didn’t really begin until visiting fans in Nationals Park really let him have it and he reacted poorly.

As for current Nationals, Harper usually receives a fair amount of boos, but considering that there’s the possibility he becomes a Phillie next season, maybe the fans should go easy on him. We don’t want him to carry any hard feelings into contract negotiations. (Also, I don’t want to provoke him into snapping out of his recent slump.)

Invasion Part Two?

The series against the Yankees saw an unfortunate amount of Yankees fans enter Citizens Bank Park. With another nearby East Coast team coming to visit, will the Phillies have to deal with a similar influx of Nationals fans?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Toronto Blue Jays
“The rest of us will be along any minute”
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to go out on a limb and say no. The only stadium that Nationals fans have ever come close to “taking over” is Baltimore’s Camden Yards. And that only happens because many of those fans claim to be fans of both teams, and will conveniently switch allegiance based on the standings.

Prediction

The Phillies will win the first two games of the series, and visions of a sweep will dance in our heads. Unfortunately, bullpen and defensive miscues will once again doom them in the final two games of the series, and we’ll have to settle for a split.