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The champ is here? Phillies vs. Nationals series preview

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The 2019 champs don’t look poised to defend their crown

MLB: Game One-Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals
Max Scherzer’s best days may be behind him
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been a great season for Nationals fans. Thanks to the coronavirus, they’ve been deprived of any opportunity to celebrate their World Series victory in the stadium. And based on how the team has performed this season, it seems unlikely that they’ll have an opportunity to celebrate a championship next season either.

Washington Nationals

Record: 11-14 (Fourth place in National League East)

The last time they met

In late September 2019, the Phillies were spiraling towards a .500 record while the Nationals were making a run at a playoff spot. When they met up for a four-game series, the Nats played like a team determined to make the postseason, while the Phillies looked like they wanted to get their manager fired. If that was indeed their goals, both teams succeeded.

Heavy is the head

After years of playoff failures, the Nationals finally broke through and won the World Series last year. Like any defending champ, they entered the season confident that they would be able to repeat, but looking at the team’s 2020 roster, it seems very likely that we’ll have a new champion at season’s end.

Two of the key figures in the Nats’ title run were third baseman Anthony Rendon and pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The team chose to offer Strasburg a hefty contract while allowing Rendon to leave as a free agent. Considering Strasburg is undergoing surgery this week, there are plenty of people second guessing that decision.

Nats ownership has drawn a good deal of criticism for offering players heavily deferred contracts which has contributed to losing Rendon and Bryce Harper to free agency the past two years. The current replacements for those All-Stars are Carter Kieboom (.602 OPS) and Adam Eaton (.614 OPS). For all the Nationals’ fans talk about how much they don’t miss Bryce Harper, I bet they’d take him in their lineup right about now.

But what about the rotation?

Last season, the Nationals were carried through the playoffs by their starting rotation. However, the 2020 rotation is not the overwhelming strength it was last season...and might not be a strength at all. Take a look at the starters the Nats have lined up for this series.

Max Scherzer still leads the rotation, but there’s plenty of evidence that Max Scherzer isn’t Max Scherzer anymore. He’s given up nine runs in 12 innings across his last two starts, and at age 35, his uber-ace days may be behind him. Remember how sad it was to see Roy Halladay become mortal? That’s what Nationals fans are experiencing right now.

In Strasburg’s absence, Patrick Corbin is the team’s second best starter, but he hasn’t been able to duplicate his excellent 2019 season. He’s still an asset, but maybe not a “It’s good that we paid him instead of Rendon or Harper” level asset. The third starter for the series is swingman Erick Fedde who has inherited the Tanner Roark role of being a good pitcher except for those games where he is not.

The rotation isn’t necessarily bad, but there’s a huge gulf between not bad and “let’s ride these guys to a World Series.”

How you gonna pick on Sean Doolittle?

Phillies fans (often deservedly) have a bad reputation, but if you recall, we were really nice to Brad Lidge during his disastrous 2009 season. Compare that to the Nationals fans and their recent treatment of Sean Doolittle. Not only was he a key contributor to the World Series team, but Doolittle has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the best guys in the sport. You’d think that would earn him some slack from fans.

Apparently not. After a bad outing, some people on Twitter harrassed him to the point where he de-activated his account.

Hey, Sean: If you’d like to play for a different team in a different city, I know of one that could use some relief help!

Prediction

It’s tough to pick the Phillies to win too many games when the bullpen is such a disaster, but against an unimpressive Nationals offense, this could be the series to get them on track. Scherzer will continue to look old, Fedde will continue to be unimpressive, and the Phillies will take two out of three.