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Wild Card Fever! Phillies vs. Nationals series preview

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The second half begins with a clash between two NL East teams fighting for a Wild Card berth

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies
It would be nice if Harper could take Strasburg deep again
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After four days off to clear their heads, the Phillies will kick off the second half of the season with a series against the Nationals. With both teams currently holding the National League’s Wild Card spots, and a mere half game separating them in the standings, this figures to be a key set of games.

Washington Nationals

Record: 47-42, Second place in National League East

The last time they met

The Phillies visited Washington in mid-June, and it rained a lot. The Nationals chose to wait three hours before canceling one of the games, which pretty much set the tone for the series.

A break before the break

Every team got four games off for the All-Star Game, but the Nats got a bit of a break before that. Their final 12 games before the All-Star Game were against the Marlins, Tigers, and Royals. Two of those teams are in last place in their division, and the only reason the Tigers aren’t in last place is because the Royals have sucked even more than they have.

Give the Nats credit for performing well against these teams - something the Phillies have been inconsistent with this season - but their recent record shouldn’t be used as proof that they’ve transformed into a powerhouse. We’ll see just how they fare now that they need to switch out of “easy” mode.

They might need those guys

Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer are among the best players in baseball. So it’s probably not a good sign for the Nationals that both men are dealing with some nagging injuries. Rendon’s working through leg injuries, while Scherzer has a stiff back. They’re both expected to play, but neither may be at full strength.

But they’ve still got Stephen Strasburg!

Sure, he’s got ten wins on the season, but let’s talk about his month of June. While he managed to go 4-1, his ERA was 5.70 and he gave up six home runs in five games. We should also remember his previous start against the Phillies when he allowed six runs in four innings.

Unwelcome Matt

With Ryan Zimmerman spending time on the injured list as is his wont, the Nats have turned to Matt Adams at first base. This went well for them at first, but lately, he’s been showing exactly why he’s had difficulty seizing a full-time job throughout his eight year career. He’s batting a measly .213 over the past month, and for the last two weeks, he hasn’t even managed to get over the Mendoza line. It’s very possible that the extended playing time has exposed his weaknesses.

It’s the Dodgers, Nick. You’re facing the Dodgers!

The Phillies will send Nick Pivetta to the mound to open the series, and that doesn’t fill me with much hope. In nine career appearances against the Nationals, Pivetta has a 10.80 ERA. In his last start, he was actually doing okay at first, holding the Nats to three runs in the first three innings. Unfortunately, things fell apart in the sixth, when he gave up three more runs.

My suggestion is that the Phillies gaslight him, telling him that they’re not really playing the Nationals, but rather the Dodgers, who he has a career 2.12 ERA against. (Although now that I think about it, telling a pitcher he’s facing the Dodgers, doesn’t seem like the best way to build up his confidence.)

Let’s do this thing, Bryce

With the pitching staff in disarray, if the Phillies are going to make the playoffs, it seems likely that they’ll need to be carried by the offense. And while one man can’t do it alone, the best hope for the offense is that their highly-paid three-hole hitter starts to get hot.

Bryce Harper had a good, but not great first half of the season, but in order to make the postseason, they’ll need him to start hitting like a superstar. The good news is that he has a history of good second halves. Last year, he put up an OPS of .972 after the break, and in 2017, he was at .968.

A big series against his former team would be a great place to start. At the very least, it might serve to make this guy cry:

Remembering some lousy Nationals from the past

Let’s take a look back at some bad Nationals players from the days of yore.

Wily Mo Pena

As a 21 year old for the Reds, Pena hit 26 home runs - many of them traveling a very long distance - so there was hope that he’d develop into a star. He was traded to the Red Sox, and because Boston players inevitably get overexposed, Nats fans held out hope that he still might have star potential.

Pena would still hit the occasional long home run, but it was far more likely that he’d strike out. In his second season with the Nats, he hit a whopping two home runs in 195 at bats. It’s not a good sign when a 102 loss team - as the 2008 Nats were - give up on a 26 year old. He spent the next two years bouncing from minor league system to minor league system.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
Pena didn’t make a lot of contact, but it was magnificent when he did
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Jason Bergmann

Drafted by the Expos in 2011, Bergmann made it to the major leagues in 2005 as a reliever. By the midpoint of 2006, the Nats were frustrated with his inability to get hitters out. They hoped the problem was that he should have been starting games instead of pitching in relief. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good as a starter either.

He spent most of 2007 and 2008 in the rotation, until the Nats moved him back to the bullpen in 2009. Since he wasn’t a complete disaster that season, the Nats brought him back for 2010. He made four appearances, and surrendered runs in three of them.

The Nats were finally faced with the realization that the Jason Bergmann thing wasn’t going to happen, so they banished him to the minor leagues, never to return.

Prediction

When a team is hot, they generally don’t want to take a lengthy break. The Nats might seem to have the advantage in the pitching matchups this weekend, but Harper will have a huge series and lift the Phillies to two wins.