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Look out, Johnny Vander Meer: Phillies vs. Nationals series preview

Michael Lorenzen will try to do what only one pitcher has ever done before.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies
Can Michael Lorenzen keep the Nationals hitless for a second straight game?
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Phillies and Nationals just faced off a little over a week ago, and if you recall, Michael Lorenzen had somewhat of a memorable pitching performance in that series.

Lorenzen will make his follow-up start against those same Nationals on Friday night. He has a chance to be the first pitcher to throw consecutive no-hitters since Johnny Vander Meer did the deed in 1938. Not that it would have ever been easy to throw consecutive no-hitters, but the feat will be even more difficult with the Nationals playing better since their last meeting.

Washington Nationals

Record: 55-67, Fifth place in National League East (24.5 games back)

The last time they met

As mentioned, they just played a series in Philadelphia a little over a week ago. The Phillies took three of the four games.

Since then?

The Nationals have done well since they left town, winning five out of six against the A’s and Red Sox. Obviously beating the A’s isn’t much of an accomplishment, but the Red Sox are in the playoff hunt.

The race for fourth place

It seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Nats would finish in last place, but they - combined with the collapse of the Mets - have pushed themselves to a virtual tie for fourth place. Not that many have noticed, but the Nats have attained some level of respectability with division laughingstock status clearly now belonging to the Mets.

Who’s cold?

When you hit 30+ home runs every season like Kyle Schwarber does, you can kind of get away with a sub-.200 batting average. When it’s mid-August and you’re still in single digits for home runs like Nats center fielder Alex Call, a .198 average is far less acceptable. Call is 4 for his last 34 with zero extra base hits.

He is regarded as a strong defender in the outfield, and you pretty much have to be if you’re performing this poorly on offense.

Can I get an encore?

Is Lorenzen up to the task of being the second pitcher to ever throw consecutive no-hitters?

Probably not. If you take a look at this list of best follow-ups to no-hitters, most of the names you see are Hall of Famers and Cy Young Award winners. Lorenzen is having a fine season, but he’s not quite at that level.

Additionally, while it was nice to give him extra rest after that effort, I wonder if having eight days off and then facing the same opponent might work to Lorenzen’s disadvantage.

A little about Johnny Vander Meer

My guess is that Vander Meer’s career was before the time of just about everyone reading this. He was a solid pitcher, pitching 13 seasons, most with the Reds. He made four All-Star teams and earning MVP votes in four seasons. Unfortunately, like many of his generation, two of his prime playing years were lost due to military service.

Vander Meer was a bit like Randy Johnson in that he led the league in strikeouts three times, but also led the league in walks twice. He faced the Phillies a lot over his career, going 17-15 (Remember, pitcher wins mattered back then) with a 3.63 ERA in 47 games. In one of those games, he came very close to adding another no-hitter to his resume.

As for the Phillies’ bats

There was some consternation as the Phillies’ offense was stymied for three straight games against the Twins and Blue Jays. Yes, they faced good starting pitchers, but it is possible to actually hit well against a good pitcher every now and then. The good news is that none of the scheduled starters for the Nationals are especially good.

First up is Joan Adon, who has regularly bounced between the minors and majors the last two years but hasn’t pitched all that well at either level. He faced the Phillies twice in 2022 and gave up eight runs over nine innings.

Next up is rookie Jake Irvin, who has a propensity for serving up home runs. To put in perspective, he allows more homers per nine innings than Aaron Nola. He’s given up multiple dingers in four of his past five starts.

Finally, the Phillies get another crack at Trevor Williams. He’s faced them three times and has given up multiple home runs in each start. The most recent came last week when Kyle Schwarber took him deep twice.

Obviously, facing bad pitchers doesn’t always mean that a team will score a lot of runs. The Phillies have shown they can struggle against pitchers of any caliber, and their issues with runners in scoring position can reoccur at any time.

But besides the quality of the Nats’ starters, there’s another reason to believe we might see some high-scoring efforts this weekend:

Bryce is back?

Bryce Harper had gone quiet for a minute with just three hits over seven games. But then he busted out of that slump with three hits including two home runs on Wednesday night.

There have been a couple of times this season when I thought maybe Harper was finally finding his power stroke and we’d get an MVP-like performance the rest of the way. But those proved to be false alarms.

But coming off a two-home run game, facing his old team in front of his “adoring” fans in DC? It really feels like we should get at least two home runs this weekend.

Closing thought

The Nationals are not awful, and as the Red Sox learned, take them lightly at your own peril. But they’re also a team that the Phillies should beat. As for Lorenzen, I fully expect him to give up a hit in the first inning on Friday, quickly eliminating any sense of drama, and allowing Johnny Vander Meer to rest peacefully.

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