Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Tough assignment for Aaron Nola

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Tough assignment for Aaron Nola

Phillies (3-6) at Nationals (5-4)
4:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies open up a road series in D.C. after getting Thursday off to recover from that ugly series against the Mets.

It's the second straight weekend the Phillies are facing the Nats. They won two of three games last week at Citizens Bank Park with a 17-run outburst Saturday and a walk-off win Sunday.

Let's check out the matchup:

1. No early favors
The schedule-makers made things pretty rough on the Phillies early in the season.

With two series apiece against the Nationals and Mets in early April, the Phils will have played 12 of their first 15 games against those two NL contenders.

At the end of April (29-30), they're in L.A. to face the Dodgers. Following that is a four-game series on the road against the reigning champion Cubs, then three more with the Nationals at home.

The mid- and late-summer schedule eases up, but this is setting the Phillies up for a potentially huge hole.

The worst thing about facing the Nats and Mets so often early in the year is that pitching is usually ahead of hitting in April and those two teams each have multiple aces.

It's one thing to face an offensive juggernaut because big bats can be shut down on any given night. But when you know you're entering multiple series against Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg so early it can affect a team's confidence. The players wouldn't admit it but they know how daunting the task is.

The Phils drew Scherzer and Strasburg last weekend, then deGrom and Harvey earlier this week. This weekend they'll see Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, then in the upcoming Mets series they'll face Syndergaard.

2. Nola's second start
Aaron Nola faces the Nationals for the second straight start. He pitched well last Saturday, allowing three runs over six innings with seven strikeouts. 

Nola induced 13 swinging strikes in 89 pitches (a solid number) but if there was a troubling sign it was his low number of first-pitch strikes -- he threw just 13 to the 24 batters he faced.

Nola was aided, of course, by the Phillies' 12-run first inning. Any pitcher welcomes that kind of run support because you then get to attack, attack, attack. You don't need to hit perfect spots because it would require three grand slams to tie it up.

But wiggle room aside, Nola's stuff looked sharp in his season debut. His two-seam fastball was dancing back toward the outside corner against right-handed hitters and his curveball had that knee-buckling break we've become accustomed to.

It's never easy to face the same team twice in a week and it's even harder when it's an offense as loaded as Washington's. 

Bryce Harper is 8 for 14 lifetime off Nola with two home runs. Daniel Murphy is 6 for 16 with three doubles, a triple and a homer. Jayson Werth is 6 for 17 with two homers. 

All told, current Nats have hit .312 off Nola with an .896 OPS. He's made seven starts against the Nats and gone 1-3 with a 5.26 ERA.

3. Strasburg again
The Phillies hit Strasburg better last week in South Philly than they ever have, scoring three runs off him in seven innings. They did it by taking advantage of their few run-scoring opportunities and by running the bases well. Tommy Joseph stole his second career base and scored on a single. Cesar Hernandez legged out an infield hit to plate the second run, and he scored from first on Howie Kendrick's double. All three runs came with two outs.

Maikel Franco was hitless in the game against Strasburg but had three quality plate appearances against him, walking twice and lining out sharply to center field. On Wednesday night, after his grand slam, Franco said that the game against Strasburg was got him going.

"I see Strasburg well, I think I'm 3 for 10 with a homer and two walks," Franco said. You're actually 3 for 11, but we'll let it slide, Maik.

Since that game against Strasburg, Franco has gone 5 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs. The season is extremely young but Franco is seeing more pitches than ever before and swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone.

4. Remember Ryan?
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is on fire. Through nine games, he's gone 13 for 34 (.382) with three doubles and three home runs. 

It's a welcome sign for Washington's offense because Zimmerman hasn't been an impactful offensive player since 2013. He hit .218 in 2016, missed 67 games in 2015 and missed 101 games in 2014.

Once upon a time, Zimmerman was the face of the Nats' franchise. He's since slid behind Harper and Murphy in the pecking order, but when Washington has all four of Harper, Murphy, Zimmerman and Werth going, this is an almost impossible lineup to shut down. Two lefties and two righties, all of whom have plate discipline and power.

It was Zimmerman's three-run home run last weekend that ended Jeanmar Gomez's run as the Phillies' closer.

Zimmerman has played basically a full major-league season against the Phillies (163 career games). In those 696 plate appearances, he's hit .266/.329/.453 with 48 doubles, 21 home runs and 92 RBIs. His numbers vs. the Phils were much better a few years ago; since 2015, he's hit just .200 in 105 at-bats.

5. This and that
• The Phillies' pitching staff has been awful with two strikes. They've allowed nine home runs with two strikes and no other team has allowed more than six.

Their opponents' slugging percentage with two strikes is .443 and the next-worst team is at .364.

However, the Phillies also have the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors with two strikes (behind the Cubs). It's been all or nothing.

• Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris and Pat Neshek have combined to pitch 12 scoreless innings so far this season with 15 strikeouts. They've allowed just 10 baserunners. The back-end of the bullpen is the unquestioned strength of this team -- it's just a matter of getting the game into their hands with the lead.

• All three games this weekend in D.C. are day games: 4:05 this afternoon, 1:05 on Saturday and 1:35 on Sunday.

• The Phillies are 14-27 against the Nats since 2014.

• Standard 2017 Phillies lineup today:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Howie Kendrick, LF
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Adam Eaton, CF
2. Anthony Rendon, 3B
3. Bryce Harper, RF
4. Daniel Murphy, 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
6. Jayson Werth, LF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Wilmer Difo, SS
9. Stephen Strasburg, P

MLB Notes: Braves lose 13 international players in sanctions

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MLB Notes: Braves lose 13 international players in sanctions

ATLANTA -- Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred hit the Atlanta Braves with heavy sanctions, including the loss of 13 players, on Tuesday for rules violations committed by the team in the international player market.

Manfred also placed former Braves general manager John Coppolella on the permanently ineligible list. Former Braves Special Assistant Gordon Blakeley, who was the team's international scouting chief, is suspended from performing services for any team for one year.

Manfred said an investigation conducted by Major League Baseball determined the Braves circumvented international signing rules from 2015 through 2017 by moving bonus pool money from one player to boost another player's contract.

Most notable among the players the Braves will lose is Kevin Maitan, an infielder from Venezuela who signed for $4.25 million in 2016 (see full story).

Yankees: Judge has left shoulder surgery
NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees say slugger Aaron Judge had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder and is expected to be ready for spring training.

The operation was performed Monday by Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles. The Yankees say the procedure involved a loose-body removal and cartilage cleanup.

The 25-year-old Judge hit .284 with 52 homers and 114 RBIs in 155 games this season, helping New York make it to the AL Championship Series, where they lost to the eventual World Series champion Astros. He was a unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year and finished second to Houston infielder Jose Altuve in the AL MVP race.

MLB: Morgan urges voters to keep steroid users out of HOF
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is urging voters to keep "known steroid users" out of Cooperstown.

A day after the Hall revealed its 33-man ballot for the 2018 class, the 74-year-old Morgan argued against the inclusion of players implicated during baseball's steroid era in a letter to voters with the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The letter from the vice chairman of the Hall's board of directors was sent Tuesday using a Hall email address.

"Steroid users don't belong here," Morgan wrote. "What they did shouldn't be accepted. Times shouldn't change for the worse."

Hall voters have been wrestling with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs for several years. Baseball held a survey drug test in 2003 and the sport began testing for banned steroids the following year with penalties. Accusations connected to some of the candidates for the Hall vary in strength from allegations with no evidence to positive tests that caused suspensions (see full story).

Cubs: Venable leaves front office to be base coach
CHICAGO -- Will Venable is leaving the Chicago Cubs front office to be their first base coach.

The former major league outfielder was hired last summer as a special assistant to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

The 35-year-old Venable replaces Brandon Hyde, who has been promoted to bench coach for manager Joe Maddon.

The Cubs also announced Tuesday that they had hired Jim Benedict as a special assistant to baseball operations. Benedict spent the previous two seasons as the vice president for pitching development for the Miami Marlins.

Phillies add 4 pitching prospects to 40-man roster

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Phillies add 4 pitching prospects to 40-man roster

The Phillies added four promising pitching prospects to their 40-man roster on Monday. In a corresponding move, they subtracted a notable name.

Right-handers Franklyn Kilome, Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Taveras and lefty Ranger Suarez were all added to the roster, protecting them from being selected by another club in next month's Rule 5 draft.

The Phillies also added an infielder, Engelb Vielma, to the roster. He was claimed off waivers from the San Francisco Giants.

To make room for these additions, the team needed to clear three spots on its roster, which had been at 38. Left-handed pitcher Elniery Garcia cleared waivers and was sent outright to the minor leagues while right-handers Alberto Tirado and Mark Appel were designated for assignment. The Phillies will try to trade Tirado and Appel before placing them on waivers. If they clear waivers, they could stay in the system.

The Phillies cut Appel loose after he'd struggled with injury and ineffectiveness during two seasons in the organization. The 26-year-old right-hander from Stanford University had twice been a first-round draft pick, by Pittsburgh in 2012 and by Houston — No. 1 overall — in 2013. The Phillies acquired him from the Astros as part of the package for Ken Giles in December 2015, but he never lived up to his huge potential.

"A lot of the tools that Mark showed as an amateur that led to him being the No. 1 overall pick are still there," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. "He has simply struggled with performance. It's certainly not for lack of effort on his part. We think the world of the kid and wish him well. It was a tough decision."

Tirado, 22, was acquired from Toronto in July 2015 as part of the return for Ben Revere. He arrived with a fastball that could reach triple digits on the radar gun and that promise earned him a spot on the 40-man a year ago. Tirado suffered a shoulder injury early last season and struggled in the minors.

All four of the pitchers that the Phillies protected are products of the team's international scouting department. Taveras, 24, was a standout at three levels in the minors last season and could be in the picture in Philadelphia in 2018. He led the system in strikeouts in 2016 and 2017.

"He knows how to get guys out and often times that comes via the strikeout," Klentak said. "No matter where he pitches, he rises to the occasion and puts up a strong performance."

Kilome, 22, and Dominguez, 22, are both power arms who project to see significant time at Double A in 2018. Suarez, 22, should also get to Double A at some point in 2018. He had a 2.27 ERA in 22 starts at two levels of Single A ball in 2017.

"He may have been the breakout pitcher of the year for the Phillies," Klentak said. "We'd always heard a lot about him and this year he took his performance to another level.

"We're really excited for all four of these guys. All have worked extremely hard and they are all deserving of being added to our roster. Our international scouting operation, Sal Agostinelli and his group, continues to crank out players. They've done a great job. These four pitchers have earned this through their work ethic and performance. By no means is this the ultimate goal for them, but it's one step closer. We believe really strongly in the futures of these four pitchers."

Vielma, 23, is a top defensive shortstop who can also play second and third base. He was waived by Minnesota in September and claimed by the Giants, who let him go in a roster crunch.

"He's an intriguing claim," Klentak said. "He adds depth to our infield."

The Phillies’ roster is at 40. The team will have to clear space if it wants to add a player in next month's Rule 5 draft. Last November, the Phils added 11 players to the 40-man roster and still lost lefty reliever Hoby Milner to Cleveland. Milner failed to make the Indians' opening-day roster, returned to the organization in March and ended up making 37 appearances for the big club after coming up in late June. He was one of 12 rookies to make their big-league debut with the Phillies in 2017.

Notable players who were not protected include outfielders Carlos Tocci and Andrew Pullin and pitcher Brandon Leibrandt.

"One of the byproducts of a strong system is every year there are some tough omissions," Klentak said. "There are always tough calls. But we look at that as a good problem to have."