This is a good series to get out of the way early.
Bryce Harper makes his much-anticipated return to D.C. for the first time since signing with the Phillies. Beyond that, this is an interesting early-season test for the Phils, a quick two-game road series after that sweep of the Braves.
Pitching matchup: Zach Eflin vs. Max Scherzer (0-1, 2.35)
Best of the best
Scherzer and Jacob deGrom are the two best pitchers in the National League, with Aaron Nola a close third. The Phils may see deGrom two weeks from now, but tonight they’ll see Scherzer, last year’s Cy Young runner-up and the award winner in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Scherzer has had the Phillies’ number in 15 starts against them since signing with Washington. He’s 8-1 with a 2.45 ERA. He’s struck out 126 batters in 103 innings but the Phillies have taken him deep nine times.
Scherzer is the game’s preeminent strike-thrower — nobody gets to 0-2 or 1-2 more frequently. That will mean fewer walks for a Phillies team that enters Tuesday with the sport’s highest walk rate (17.9 percent). But it could also mean extra-base hits early in counts if he catches too much plate.
If the Phils can get to Scherzer — with a pitcher this talented, three runs in seven innings is an achievement — it will be a major confidence-builder. Beating up on Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Shane Carle just isn’t the same.
Odubel the enigma
Good luck ever figuring out Odubel Herrera.
Is he the .285 hitter we saw from 2015-17? Is he the 20-to-25 home run hitter we saw in 2018?
Can he still exhibit selectivity at the plate? Will he give away as many at-bats this season as last?
Herrera had an awful plate appearance Sunday night, swinging at a first pitch well out of the strike zone and eventually getting himself out after the Phillies loaded the bases by being patient.
Yet oddly enough, this could turn out to be a get-right game for him. Herrera has handled Scherzer better than practically any hitter in baseball. Herrera has faced Scherzer 47 times — his most plate appearances vs. any pitcher — and hit .341/.426/.610 with two homers, three doubles, a triple and six walks.
Herrera never really cares who he’s facing. He’s more instinctive and reactive than most hitters, which seems to help him against the ace of aces.
First look at Eflin
Nick Pivetta is the young Phillies pitcher many have focused on the last few months but don’t forget about Eflin, who went 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA last June, showing again how quickly he can mow through lineups when he’s feeling good and spotting his sinker and four-seamer.
He took a 7-2 record and 2.97 ERA into his final start before the All-Star break last season, then struggled late as did the entire team.
Eflin’s three starts in 2018 against the Nationals did not go well. He allowed nine runs on 24 hits in 13 2/3 innings. But hey, he won’t have to face Harper — 5 for 9 with two doubles — anymore.
Eflin took an important step forward last season, transitioning from strictly a sinkerballer into a more complete pitcher who can miss bats. He nearly doubled his strikeout rate from 4.9 per nine innings in 2017 to 8.6 per nine last year. When he’s at his best, Eflin is able to pump mid-90s fastballs by hitters up in the zone and change eye levels with the two-seamer low and on the corners.
It’s not common for a pitcher to increase his strikeout rate so dramatically. No other MLB pitcher who was below 5.0 K/9 in 2017 was above 6.6 in 2018.
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