Phillies

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: After World Champs, Phils get MLB's top offense

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: After World Champs, Phils get MLB's top offense

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.

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

How far Aaron Nola and Phillies have come in 366 days

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A year ago Friday, Aaron Nola carried a 4.76 ERA into his eighth start of the season. It may be hard to remember, but there was uncertainty then with the 25-year-old. He was coming off a 2016 season when he was hit around for most of June and July and then spent the rest of the season on the DL with an elbow injury. 

Early into 2017, he hadn't yet gotten his mojo back.

When Nola dominated the Cardinals over 7⅓ innings that night, little did we know he was beginning a historic stretch of 10 consecutive starts allowing two runs or less in six innings or more.

The story on Nola has changed significantly over these last 366 days. Whereas a year ago it was unclear whether he'd live up to his potential, he's now solidified as an ace of a major-league staff who has well exceeded it.

And whereas that win on June 22, 2017 improved the Phillies to 25 games under .500, this win capped off the fourth straight series win for a surging team. 

Nola made another impressive start Saturday, limiting the Nationals to two runs over six strong innings. Both runs came in the first. After a leadoff single in the second inning, the Nationals went 0 for 14 off Nola until he exited. 

The Phillies' 5-3 win made Nola 9-2 on the season. He's allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his 16 starts. 

Over the last calendar year, Nola is 17-8 in 33 starts with a 2.86 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 211 innings. Ace-like production.

Any pitcher with that resume would be lying if he said the last year hasn't made him more confident. Nola certainly is.

"I feel like I'm learning more about myself, my body, learning more about the game," he said Saturday. "I feel like I just need to keep adding on though, the more I keep pitching. I think it's pretty cool."

After this weekend, the Phillies aren't back in D.C. until the end of August. But Nola will return to Nationals Park sooner because he'll undoubtedly represent the Phillies in the All-Star Game July 17.

It's an honor he's earned. To this point, the only two NL pitchers having better seasons are Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

It's a testament to how good Nola has become that on an afternoon in D.C. when he felt like he had little, he still pitched well against a dangerous 1-6 of Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner.

"You're not gonna have your stuff all the time," Nola said. "Most of the time you're gonna have two pitches, really hope to have three pitches with command of all of them. Some days you feel like you have not much at all. That's kind of what I felt today. But it's all about competing and battling and that's what I did today."

That's what the Phillies have done for the last two weeks. They've won nine of their last 12 games, and after starting June with a 1-7 record, they're 10-10. 

The offense has come around, the defense has gone a little while without being sloppy, and the starting pitching continues to keep the Phillies in games.

Perhaps we need to rethink the ceiling for this team. Not because of one 4-for-4 game from Maikel Franco (see first take) or a weekend series win in the nation's capital, but because of how well the Phils have held their own against top competition. They're 21-23 against teams .500 or above and 20-10 against losing teams. A formula like that can get you to October.

"The hitting's been off the charts, scoring runs like crazy," Nola said. "We're playing really good baseball."

June has been a disastrous month for the Phillies for years. Since 2012, they're 70-117 in June. But this time, the struggles didn't last the entire month. The Phils were able to turn it around after falling to 32-30 and are now eight games over .500 for the first time since May 31.

Have these last two weeks changed the conversation about the 2018 team?

"It may change the external conversations," Gabe Kapler said, "but internally, whether we went through this stretch and got beat up a little bit or went through this stretch and came out in a really good spot, we're still the same, high-quality team."

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

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AP Images

Another series win for Phillies during unlikely June turnaround

BOX SCORE 

Remember all that talk about the Phillies' grueling June schedule?

They're meeting the challenge.

After Saturday's 5-3 win over the Nationals, the Phillies are 9-3 in their last 12 games and have won four straight series over the Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals and Nats.

On May 28, the Phillies embarked upon a 32-game stretch during which the worst team they'd face was a game under .500. The Phils are 24 games into that stretch and have gone 12-12. 

They opened June by losing seven of eight games yet have worked their way to 10-10 on the month.

At 41-33, the Phillies are 1½ games behind the Braves and 1½ ahead of the Nationals.

Nola bounces back

After failing to complete five innings for the first time in 36 starts last Sunday in Milwaukee, Aaron Nola rebounded and held the Nationals in check over six strong innings.

Nola allowed a pair of runs with two outs in the first and a leadoff single to Wilmer Difo in the second, then the Nationals went 0 for 14 against him the rest of the way. 

Nola is 9-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 16 starts this season. In 12 of them, he's allowed two runs or less.

Franco's big day

Huge afternoon for Maikel Franco, who went 4 for 4 with three singles and a double.

Franco scored in the second to tie the game, scored in the seventh to put the Phillies ahead and drove in a run in the eighth to give them a three-run cushion.

Both times he crossed home plate, he barely scored after aggressive sends from third-base coach Dusty Wathan — one on an RBI single from Nola, the other on a sac fly from Jesmuel Valentin. On the game-winning, seventh-inning sac fly, Bryce Harper caught the ball with his momentum coming toward the plate and fired home but Franco narrowly eluded catcher Spencer Kieboom's tag. The Nationals challenged but the call was upheld.

Thievery

The Nationals went 1 for 2 stealing bases against Nola, who has been on the mound for more steals (14) and attempts (18) than any pitcher in the majors this season.

Wilmer Difo swiped second in the second, but Jorge Alfaro ended the fifth inning by nailing Harper. Alfaro has thrown out 14 base stealers to lead the majors.

Going away from Altherr

Nick Williams got another start at right field and went 1 for 3 with a double.

Since June 10, Nick Williams has started nine games and Aaron Altherr has started two.

Altherr has just 20 at-bats in the Phillies' last 11 games.

Hard to argue with how Gabe Kapler is divvying up the playing time. Altherr is still hitting just .180 through 211 plate appearances, while Williams has hit .263 with an .833 OPS since May 1.

It was also telling that with the game tied and a man on third with one out in the seventh inning, Kapler opted to use Valentin instead of Altherr to pinch-hit for Nola.

Up next

The Phillies are on Sunday Night Baseball for the first time since Aug. 4, 2013.

They face the Nationals on ESPN at 8:07 p.m. with Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08) opposing Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta allowed six runs while lasting just one inning when he last faced the Nats here on May 4. Without that game, his season ERA would be 3.45.

Rodriguez is making his second career start. He allowed five runs in five innings and was taken deep twice Tuesday vs. the Orioles.