Noah Syndergaard

Week ahead for Phillies and Braves couldn't be more different

Week ahead for Phillies and Braves couldn't be more different

Updated: 9:55 p.m.

Saturday night did not go well for the Phillies. They lost to the Cubs, 7-1, while the Braves scored four in the eighth inning to beat the Pirates, 5-3.

As a result, the Phillies are three games back again. Still, they're closer to the top of the NL East than they are the wild-card.

While those seven games against the Braves from Sept. 20-30 will be the ultimate determinant of whether the Phillies win the division, it is a must that they pick up ground this upcoming week.

Why? Because it's the biggest difference in opposition the Phillies and Braves will face the rest of the way.

Phillies' week ahead

After the Phils finish with the Cubs, they have three games in Miami, an off day Thursday, then three games at Citi Field against the Mets. The Marlins and Mets are a combined 57 games under .500. 

The Phils are 8-5 against the Marlins and 5-8 against the Mets.

Braves' week ahead

The Braves, meanwhile, have an extremely challenging stretch of 20 games after the weekend. While the Phillies are in Miami and New York, the Braves will host the Red Sox for three games and then head West for four games in Arizona, followed by three in San Francisco.

It's key that the Braves are facing the Red Sox in early September as opposed to two weeks from now. The Red Sox (93-43) have a 7½-game lead on the Yankees, which at this time of year is sizable but not insurmountable. 

After the three games with Boston comes a West Coast road trip for a tired Braves team. Atlanta will have played 31 games in 30 days when the trip begins and won't have an off day until Sept. 13.

The Diamondbacks are a formidable and hungry opponent. They lead the NL West by just a game over the Dodgers and 1½ games over the Rockies. 

And best of all from the Phillies' perspective, the Braves will face Zack Greinke (13-9, 2.97 ERA) and Patrick Corbin (3.15 ERA, 11.0 K/9) in the first two games of the series. 

As rough as August was at times for the Phillies, they are still in a great position to win the division given the schedule disparities between them and the Braves. Because of this, Fangraphs gives the Phillies a 45 percent chance to win the division compared to the Braves' 52 percent, despite the current two-game deficit.

Of course, taking advantage of the upcoming schedule means the Phils have to finally take care of business against the Mets. It's all relative when it comes to the Mets in September. If you're facing Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler (the hottest pitcher in baseball right now), it's still a tough series.

As of now, the Phils are set next weekend to face Steven Matz, Syndergaard and deGrom, in that order.

Phillies play a different brand of baseball to beat Noah Syndergaard

Phillies play a different brand of baseball to beat Noah Syndergaard

BOX SCORE

The Phillies' offense, for the vast majority of the season, has relied on walks and home runs to score.

Its calling card has been plate selection. Make the starting pitcher work, get him out early.

On Friday night against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets, the Phillies played a different brand of baseball. They "went against their norm," as Gabe Kapler put it.

Rather than make Syndergaard throw a lot of pitches in the first inning, the Phillies attacked early in the count. The Phils swing at the first pitch less than 22 other clubs, but at one point in the first inning, three consecutive hitters put the first pitch in play.

And 11 pitches into Syndergaard's night, he was down 3-0.

Kapler's rationale was that against a pitcher like Syndergaard, you're playing a dangerous game if you fall behind in the count. But the strategy also made sense based on how Syndergaard has pitched of late. Coming into Friday's game, he had averaged nearly two fewer pitches per inning over his last five starts than he did in his first 11. Syndergaard's strikeout numbers have been down and his groundball rate has jumped. He's been trying to be more efficient, to get outs earlier in counts, and on Friday, the Phillies took advantage of those early fastballs.

They also ran all over him. It's well known across baseball that Syndergaard is slow to home plate and doesn't concern himself much with holding runners. And so Friday night, everyone on the basepaths had the green light. 

Jorge Alfaro stole two bases. Carlos Santana stole one and could have had two if a pitch earlier in the game wasn't fouled off. Maikel Franco stole his third career base. Cesar Hernandez swiped a bag for the second straight game.

For the Phillies against Syndergaard, pretty much every single or walk was worth two bases.

“It’s definitely an Achilles heel of mine,” Syndergaard told reporters, “something that’s been disappointing the last three years and was somewhat embarrassing tonight.”

"Jose Flores, our first-base coach, was especially prepared tonight, as was Rob Thomson, our bench coach. They did an amazing job understanding that not only was Syndergaard going to be slow to the plate — which we knew, it's no secret — but also, there were some things we were able to pick up on that gave us some advantages," Kapler said after the Phillies' 4-2 win (see first take)

"That's a testament to our staff and how hard they work."

But if you thought the Phillies' success on the bases Friday meant they'll continue to be this aggressive, think again.

"We'll go away from our norm when we have to," Kapler said. "We're not going to do it very often, we're not a team that's going to give away outs on the bases. We're going to be careful about when we steal them, but when we know we need to and when we have some information that helps us do so, we're gonna jump on that opportunity."

Ironically, one player who didn't steal a base Friday was Roman Quinn, who went 1 for 4 with his first big-league triple. The way he was flying around the bases after Austin Jackson couldn't snag the ball in deep left-center field, it looked for a moment like Quinn might have an inside-the-park home run. But he scored in the inning anyway, when Alfaro was able to make contact on a 1-2 pitch to break his bat with a bloop RBI single to center.

Whether it's the coaching staff speaking or his teammates, the word that always comes up with Quinn is "energy." Against the Mets, Quinn fed off the energy of watching so many of his teammates swipe bags.

"We wanted to run as much as possible," Quinn said. "Flores pulled us aside and was like, 'Yo, we need to steal more bases.' And we did so. Santana, Cesar, we did a good job on the basepaths."

On Saturday, the Phillies will face an even better pitcher: Jacob deGrom. He has a 1.81 ERA, a .205 opponents' batting average and 195 strikeouts in 159 innings. deGrom has a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and he can spot it on every corner. He also has a breaking ball that freezes hitters. He's a lot like Aaron Nola, just with a little more velocity.

deGrom is also the kind of pitcher you need to score unconventionally against. He's another guy you can't fall behind. Everyone in the Phillies' clubhouse knows it, including the Phillies' own Cy Young candidate.

"There's been a lot of Cy Young award chatter leading up to today [with Nola] and you saw why," Kapler said. "He rises to the occasion, he's ready for the biggest moment, he likes the brightest spotlight. We saw it at Fenway Park. I think he knew Syndergaard was on the mound on the other side and I think he knows that deGrom is pitching tomorrow's game. It's like no spot is too big, too bright. He just elevates his game."

Nola, the recipient of those early runs Friday, struck out 11 Mets over seven innings even without his typical pinpoint control. In 25 starts, he's 14-3 with a 2.24 ERA — the exact same ERA Roy Halladay had through 25 starts in 2010.

If the Phillies can muster three or four runs off deGrom, they can help boost Nola's Cy Young chances. It won't be easy, though, considering deGrom's allowed more than three runs one time all season.

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Phillies run all over Noah Syndergaard; Aaron Nola earns 14th win

Phillies run all over Noah Syndergaard; Aaron Nola earns 14th win

BOX SCORE

After being blown out in Game 1 and holding on to win Game 2 of Thursday's doubleheader, the Phillies won Friday night's game against the Mets in the first inning.

They ambushed Noah Syndergaard for three runs in the first, which was all Aaron Nola needed in a 4-2 win.

Nola has been literally unbeatable this season when given a bit of run support — he's 13-0 with a 2.20 ERA when the Phillies score at least three runs.

The Phils had little trouble with Syndergaard's high-90s fastball in the opening frame, swinging and missing just once in his 21 pitches. The three first-inning runs were more than Syndergaard had allowed in his last nine first-innings combined.

For the Phillies, this was a quality win against a top-tier pitcher and a good sign for their upcoming games against fellow stingy right-handers Jacob deGrom (Saturday), Stephen Strasburg (Tuesday) and Max Scherzer (Thursday).

With the win, the Phillies are 68-54 with 40 games left. They're on pace to go 90-72.

Running at will

The Phillies' game plan was to run early and often against Syndergaard, who takes forever to deliver the ball with men on base. The Phillies stole five bases off Syndergaard — Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco, Jorge Alfaro twice and Carlos Santana — and started the runner from first on two other occasions.

It's the right thing to do against Syndergaard, who has allowed 89 steals on 103 attempts in his MLB career.

They were the first two steals of Alfaro's career and Franco's third. It was Santana's second as a Phillie.

Syndergaard had averaged about 14 pitches per inning over his last five starts. In this one, he threw 115 pitches in 5⅔ innings, an average of more than 20 per frame. 

Inside Nola's start

Prior to Friday's game, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler downplayed a New York reporter's question about whether it upsets him that Nola doesn't get as much national Cy Young attention as Scherzer or deGrom. A few hours later, Nola went out and pitched yet again like a Cy Young winner.

The crazy thing was that this was far from Nola's best night, especially from a control standpoint in the middle innings. And yet, the line still read: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 11 K.

Nola is 14-3 with a 2.24 ERA in 25 starts. It is the exact same ERA Roy Halladay had through 25 starts in his Cy Young season of 2010.

He has allowed just four home runs in 12 home starts this season. Since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, the only pitcher to allow fewer than five home runs in double-digit starts at CBP was Halladay in 2011.

Pat Neshek worked a scoreless ninth for his third save. The Phillies are trying to limit the number of times Seranthony Dominguez pitches on consecutive nights.

Quinn starts again

Roman Quinn started in center field for the second straight game. While Kapler won't indicate whether to expect more starts moving forward for Quinn over the slumping Odubel Herrera, it seems like a safe bet that if Quinn continues to produce in all three phases, he'll continue to play.

Friday night, he hit his first career big-league triple on a deep fly ball to left-center that Austin Jackson couldn't snare. The ball caromed off the wall and if it wasn't played perfectly by leftfielder Jack Reinheimer, Quinn could have had an inside-the-park home run.

More on the Quinn-Herrera situation here (see story).

Cesar coming around

Hernandez's on-base percentage has been below .360 one day all season. In that regard, he's done his job as a leadoff hitter.

But entering Friday's game, he was hitting just .258, 36 points lower than his batting average the last two seasons. 

After a prolonged period without driving the ball, Hernandez has looked good the last two nights, going 4 for 8 with a double, a walk, two steals and four runs scored.

He has a stolen base in back-to-back games after stealing just one in his previous 38 games.

Up next

Another big-time pitching matchup is on tap for Saturday. It's Jake Arrieta (9-7, 3.33) vs. deGrom (7-7, 1.81).

On Sunday, Nick Pivetta (7-9, 4.37) faces veteran lefty Jason Vargas (2-8, 8.10).

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