Phillies

The non-Bryce Harper storylines of Phillies-Nationals

The non-Bryce Harper storylines of Phillies-Nationals

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. 

When: 7:05 p.m. 

Where: NBC Sports Philadelphia+; streaming live on NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the MyTeams app

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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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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