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The Last Stand of the Washington Nationals: Phillies vs. Nationals Series Preview

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The Phillies have a chance to inflict critical damage to their division rival’s playoff chances

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Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals
Another failed at bat for the Nationals
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I don’t think anyone should be pleased with how this past weekend’s series went for the Phillies. Matched against an also-ran Mets team for five games, the Phillies were only able to win two of them. While there’s no shame in losing to Jacob deGrom, the Phillies were embarrassed in the first game of the series, and came up small in front of an ESPN audience in the finale.

The good news is that the Phillies’ main rivals for the National League East crown also didn’t distinguish themselves last weekend. The Atlanta Braves somehow had an even worse weekend than the Phillies, getting swept in a four-game set by the Rockies. And the Nationals lost two of three to the last place Marlins.

The Nationals are now 6.5 games out of a playoff spot, and are rapidly running out of time to make a run. They are fortunate that they have several upcoming games left against the Braves and the Phillies, so they could make up ground quickly. On the other hand, if the Phillies play well over the next three days, they can pretty much kill the Nats’ chances.

The Last Time They Met

In late June/early July, the teams met up for a four-game series in Philadelphia. The Nats won the run differential battle thanks to a 17-7 shellacking in the second game. However, those runs didn’t carry over, and the Phillies took three of four. The finale was a 13-inning affair in which two of the heroes were Nick Pivetta and Andrew Knapp.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies
Andrew Knapp: Hero
Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

And Since Then?

Everyone has spent the season wondering when the Nats are going to:

A. Get healthy

B. Go on a run

It doesn’t appear as if the team is ever going to be fully healthy. As soon as one player returns to the active roster, two more go on the disabled list. As for making a run, the Nats are 19-24 since that last Phillies series. They simply may not have a run in them.

Nationals Pitching vs. Phillies Hitting

As has been pointed out by Paul Boyé, if a pitcher has a good change up, the Phillies are probably not going to do well against him. That’s why an undistinguished starter like Jason Vargas can look so dominant against them. It seems that they’ve faced quite a few pitchers with good offspeed pitches, because the offense hasn’t been clicking lately.

The list of Phillies who have been hitting well lately is a short one. Rhys Hoskins has three home runs in the past week, Maikel Franco continues to be a plus hitter, and Wilson Ramos has been productive since returning from the disabled list. But as a whole, the Phillies haven’t hit like a team that is currently in control of a playoff spot.

At first glance, you might think that the Phillies will have a tough time against the trio of starting pitchers the Nationals have lined up for this series. But upon closer inspection, there’s reason to believe that the Phillies might be able to get their bats going.

Tanner Roark gets the opener, and considering this will be his fourth start against them, nothing he throws should take them by surprise. As is consistent with his career, Roark’s previous three starts against the Phillies have been all over the place. He had one very good start, a poor start, and an average one. That might be a good time to give Justin Bour a start as he has three career home runs off Roark.

Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs
Sometimes Tanner Roark is good, sometimes he is not
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For most of his career, Stephen Strasburg has done well against the Phillies, but his start on Wednesday will be his first after spending over a month on the disabled list. It’s doubtful that he’ll be at his dominant best, and at the very least, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to pitch very deep into the contest.

On Thursday, Max Scherzer gets the start, and that’s usually bad news for the Phillies. However, the Nats’ ace will probably need to be almost perfect, because the Phillies are countering with Aaron Nola. This might be the best clash of starting pitchers that we’ll see in the National League this season. The game may very well come down to which team can get into the others’ bullpen first.

If the Phillies can get to the relievers early, I like their chances. The Nationals’ bullpen has been racked by injuries, with Sean Doolittle, Kelvin Herrera, and former Phillie Ryan Madson all on the disabled list. In their absence, guys like Justin Miller and Koda Glover have been forced into more prominent roles with not-so-great results.

Phillies Pitching vs. Nationals Hitting

The Nationals offense has been better lately, although still not “carry a team to the playoffs” good. Pending free agent Bryce Harper is slowly lifting his average further away from the .200 mark, and has seven home runs in the past month. Ryan Zimmerman is going through one of his sporadic bursts of good health, and has been a positive contributor as well. However rookie sensation Juan Soto seems to be slowing down somewhat, as he’s got a .182 batting average over the past two weeks.

Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs
Juan Soto: Slowing down
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Phillies will try to slow him down further with Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, and Aaron Nola. Unfortunately, there’s growing evidence that Velasquez is slowing down himself. He’s rapidly approaching a career high in innings pitched, and hasn’t made it past the fourth inning in either of his last two starts. The Phillies hope he can recapture what he did in his last start at Nationals Park (One hit in five innings.)

Zach Eflin has been pitching deeper into games lately, although he quickly tired out in the seventh inning of his last start, allowing two runs in the frame before being relieved. He’s had one previous start at Nationals Park this season in which he earned a win thanks to generous run support.

As mentioned earlier, Nola starts the finale in an ace vs. ace matchup that should be glorious to behold. If Nola wants to make a push for the Cy Young Award, outdueling Scherzer would be a great way to earn some votes.

For the most part, the Phillies bullpen has stabilized, but they still don’t seem to have a good late-inning answer against lefty hitters. Austin Davis and Aaron Loup are on the disabled list, which means Adam Morgan and Tommy Hunter are most likely to be called upon. Neither man has done much to merit much optimism.

Boo This Man (for now)

The next time the Phillies play in Nationals Park, there’s a chance that Bryce Harper may be on their team. Some Phillies fans are lukewarm about this idea since he’s going to get paid a ton, and for the most part, Harper’s career hasn’t matched the advanced hype.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals
Bryce Harper: Future Phillie?
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The anti-Harper crowd should remember a couple of things:

  1. The Phillies’ offense is currently 11th in both OPS and runs scored in the National League. While some of the young players can reasonably be expected to improve in the coming years, there is definitely a need for an upgrade.
  2. Harper leads the National League in walks and is second in home runs. And this is considered a bad year for him.

Trivia

On April 4, 2005, Terrmel Sledge hit the first home run in the reborn Nationals history against the Phillies. What pitcher did he go deep against?

R.I.P. Natitude Park

Back in 2012, the Nationals made a point to “take back” their home stadium against the annual invasion of Phillies fans. They made it difficult for out-of-town fans to buy tickets, and renamed the stadium “Natitude Park” for a weekend.

While invading Phillies fans haven’t been a problem for the Nationals the past few years, that has more to do with the Phillies’ fall from grace rather than any efforts on the Nationals part. But with the Phillies on the upswing, it’s possible we’ll hear more than a few cheers for the visiting team this weekend.

Washington has never gotten that excited about the Nats even in their best seasons. With the team teetering on the edge of contention, it seems that most of the locals have instead spent their time still celebrating the Stanley Cup or talking themselves into Alex Smith in preparation for another disappointing football season.

If any Phillies fans want to head down South and turn Nationals Park into Citizens Bank South just like the good old days, it looks like plenty of cheap tickets are available!

Prediction

The teams will split the first two games, leading up to the big ace vs. ace finale. Both men will pitch well, but it will come down to the bullpens, and the Phillies’ relievers will prove slightly less troublesome than their Washington counterparts. The Phillies win the series.

Podcast

Check out the latest edition of “Hittin’ Season,” in which host John Stolnis also provides a preview of this all-important series.