Phillies (12-15) vs. Nationals (19-9)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App
The Phillies are back in rainy Philadelphia after a disastrous road trip, but the task is no easier this weekend with baseball's best team visiting Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies open yet another three-game series with the Washington Nationals, who have spent the first five weeks of the season bashing everyone in their way.
1. Zimmerman makes the difference
Washington's lineup is dangerous enough with a 40-home run guy like Bryce Harper and batting title contender Daniel Murphy in the middle of it.
But now Ryan Zimmerman is en fuego, which allows Dusty Baker to split up his lefty hitters and makes the Nats' lineup so much tougher and deeper.
Zimmerman was the National League Player of the Month in April and hasn't yet slowed down in May. He'd be the MVP if the season ended today. He enters hitting .424/.468/.859 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs. He hit .542 last week and has driven in 17 runs the last two weeks. It's hard to imagine there being a fantasy league in the country in which Zimmerman is not the No. 1 ranked player right now.
I remember when Ryne Sandberg was the Phillies' manager, he'd mention Zimmerman any time he was asked about Harper, and it didn't really fit. Zimmerman was somewhat of a threat then but not really. From 2014 to 2016, he hit .242/.300/.420 and averaged 72 missed games per season. He hit a career low last season when he hit just .218 with a .272 OBP in 467 plate appearances.
Zimmerman, like most/all hitters with a big leg kick in their swing, is a streaky hitter. He's not going to hit .370 this season. He's hit over .300 once in the last 12 years. But this streak is lasting longer than usual for him, and the Phillies need to handle him with as much care this weekend as they do Harper.
2. Pivetta's home debut
Nick Pivetta makes his first start at Citizens Bank Park against the team that drafted him in 2013 and traded him for Jonathan Papelbon two summers later.
Pivetta avoided the big blow in his first start over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, allowing two runs in five innings despite putting 10 men on base. He struck out five.
You could tell Pivetta had some nerves, as do all debuting pitchers. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 9 of 23 batters, a rate that will get him into trouble if it's repeated, especially against a hot offense like Washington's.
We did see some glimpses in L.A., though, of how good Pivetta's stuff can be. He averaged 94.2 mph with his fastball and hit 96 at times, and his slider has some impressive break. He induced 11 swinging strikes on 91 pitches, which is several percentage points above the league average.
This is going to be a tough start for the 24-year-old, no doubt about it. He'll be asked whether facing the team that drafted and traded him provides any additional incentive, but picking up his first big-league win is incentive enough.
3. A grown-up Strasburg?
The knock on Stephen Strasburg has long been his ability to stay healthy and go deep into games. He's made a full season's worth of starts just twice since coming up in 2010, and despite his electric stuff, has never finished higher than ninth in Cy Young voting. Surprising, right?
Well, Strasburg this season has looked more like a veteran workhorse, going seven innings in all five of his starts. He's 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. He has fewer strikeouts than innings pitched, which he's never finished a season with.
Two of Strasburg's outings were against the Phillies, so this means half of his first six starts will be against them. He allowed three runs with three walks and eight strikeouts in a Phillies win on April 9, then allowed two runs in seven innings with eight K's in a Nationals win on April 14.
He's dominated the Phils as long as he's been in the majors, going 8-2 with a 2.47 ERA against them in 19 starts. At Citizens Bank Park, he's 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in seven starts, has held the Phillies to a .173 batting average and just two homers in 44 innings.
The only Phillie with decent career numbers off Strasburg is Cesar Hernandez, who is 7 for 22 (.318) with two doubles.
4. Get to the 'pen
The clear weakness of the Nationals is their bullpen. They don't have a legit closer, and the first three guys who got a crack at the job have either failed or gotten hurt. Blake Treinen has an 8.25 ERA, Koda Glover is on the DL and Shawn Kelley missed the weekend with an illness.
The Nationals have a 3.82 ERA from their starters and a 5.40 ERA from their relievers, which is second-worst in the NL ahead of only the Braves' bullpen. As poor as the Phils' bullpen has pitched, its ERA is a full point better than the Nats' at 4.38.
Chasing Strasburg after six innings tonight would be huge for the Phillies. If they can keep the game tied or within a run and force the Nationals' bullpen to pick up nine outs, they could earn an improbable series-opening win.
5. This and that
• The Nationals are averaging 6.4 runs per game. The next-best NL offense has averaged 5.1.
• The Nats also lead the majors in batting average (.289), on-base percentage (.366), slugging (.491) and doubles (63). They're second in the majors in extra-base hits and walks.
• The Phillies had another great day from their 1-2 hitters Thursday as Hernandez and Aaron Altherr combined to reach base eight of 14 times. As stated many times in these game notes, the Phils have had far and away the highest batting average and OPS in the majors out of their 1-2 hitters and are hitting nearly 100 points higher than the league average.
Hernandez has shown no signs of slowing down. He enters hitting .336/.379/.517.
• Cameron Rupp has picked things up after a slow start. He's 11 for 34 (.324) over his last nine games with five doubles, a homer and four walks.
• The Phillies' loss Thursday was their eighth one-run loss already this season. They have more one-run losses than non-one-run losses. They're 5-8 in those games after going 10-3 in their first 13 last season. It's ironic because no sane baseball fan looked at the 2017 Phillies bullpen as anything but an improvement over the 2016 edition.
• This might be a rare night off for Freddy Galvis, who made two errors Thursday and a poor throw Wednesday that allowed the Cubs' winning run to score. Even the throws Galvis made to first that were caught on Thursday were shaky. He was seen icing his hand after the game.