Inside the Standings: Chasing the Nationals Edition

Inside the Standings: Chasing the Nationals Edition

When we last checked in, the upstart Washington Nationals were in a prime position to grow their lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. The Phillies managed to salavage a 5-5 road trip on the west coast, but that wasn't enough to keep pace, as the Nats have gone 7-2 with a favorable schedule in the meantime. Their five-game lead is now twice what it was less than two weeks ago.
The Fightins should have opportunities to make up some ground over the next few series though. Here's a look a the slate ahead.
vs. Cubs (6-13)The Phillies are welcomed home by the Chicago Cubs, a four-game set against one of the worst teams in the National League. Nobody expected much out of the Cubs this season, and as you can see, they are not disappointing prognosticators.
Their offense is even less potent than the Phils, belting just seven home runs -- the lowest total in Major League Baseball by four -- and their OPS is in the thank at .628, second lowest in the league. Several players in their everyday lineup are still hitting below the Mendoza Line.
Pitching has been an issue as well, where they currently rank 14th out of 16 with a 4.37 ERA. That number might be turning around, however. Chicago got mostly quality starts the last time through the rotation, allowing 2.8 runs per game in their last five, three of which were wins. This might be a tight series for the Phillies after all.
@ Braves (12-7)Right back on the road to face off with a red-hot opponent. Since beginning the season 0-4, Atlanta has been on an absolute tear, perhaps sensing the NL East is up for grabs for the first time in years. The Braves are 12-3 in their last 15, with series wins over Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Arizona, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They are getting it done with the most productive offense in the NL, leading the league with 101 runs -- 10 more than the second-place St. Louis Cardinals -- although they may be cooling off. The Braves are scoring 3.4 per game in their last five, which was still good enough to earn three victories, but a huge drop-off from the previous four when they were averaging 10.2 per game... for real.
Atlanta's pitching staff looks like the real deal again, especially if Jair Jurrjens can figure it out. Jurrjens is off to an awful start, with a 9.37 ERA in four appearances. He hasn't lasted deeper than five innings in any game this season, and he made his earliest exit yet in his last outing when he couldn't record an out in the fourth.
@ Nationals (14-5)The Nats have the best record in the National League, and are one game behind Texas for the tops in MLB, but the difficulty level is about to rise for Washington. They face their first big test of the season beginning tonight with the LA Dodgers, a meeting of the two division leaders. They also host the Diamondbacks before the Phillies come to town, which is when things will really start to get interesting.
Philly will be trying to make up ground against one of the best rotations in baseball. The Nationals have given up the fewest runs in baseball, with a team ERA of 2.20, while striking out the most batters with 169, or almost nine per game. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler are all 2-0, and along with Jordan Zimmerman, the highest ERA among the four starters is 1.52.
Offensively, they're not much better than the Phillies. They draw walks exactly twice as often, but rank toward the bottom of the league in stealing bases. The rest of the numbers are all fairly comparable, so this series figures to come down to pitching, pitching, and pitching.
vs. Mets (11-8)The Phils lost two of three off of third-place New York a couple weeks back, and the Mets have been on a roller coaster ever since. They dropped their next two series to Atlanta and San Francisco, but at the moment, they are riding a sweep of the Marlins in which they held Miami to four runs over three games.
What seems to be lacking for the Mets is any sense of consistency at the plate. Their pitching ranks in the middle of the pack as far as preventing runs from coming across, but their offense simply isn't a whole lot more productive than the Phillies -- surprising considering four of their everyday players are hitting above .300.
Last time through, New York caught Cliff Lee and Vance Worley on a couple off-games, but you can't count on that every time you play the Phils. But if the Mets find a way to convert their 4th-best on-base percentage in the NL (.328) to more than 66 runs (11th-tied), they could remain in the mix in the NL East for awhile.
On Deck: vs. Padres (3), vs. Astros (2), @ Cubs (2), vs. Red Sox (3), vs. Nationals (3)

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

ATLANTA — Nearly four months late, Aaron Altherr is finally getting his shot to show the Phillies he deserves to be part of their future outfield plans.

Altherr, 25, was activated from the disabled list before Thursday night’s game against the Braves and was in the lineup, batting fifth (see story). Altherr will see a lot of playing time over the final two-plus months of the season. He’s essentially auditioning.

“We want to see him play as much as possible,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the game. “So if he stays healthy, I’m going to keep running him out there. That’s what this year is all about. We’re finding out about the guys that are here. He is a potentially important part so we want to see what he does. I’m anxious to see what he does.”

Altherr, a ninth-round draft pick in 2009, played in 39 games for the Phillies last season. He hit just .241, but 20 of his 33 hits were for extra bases and he had a .827 OPS. He was slated to be the team’s everyday rightfielder before suffering a wrist injury that required surgery early in spring training.

Altherr is healthy now and eager for his chance.

“I’m good to go mentally and physically,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I’m definitely excited to be back up.”

Altherr took Peter Bourjos' spot on the roster. Bourjos was placed on the disabled list with a sprained right shoulder two days after running into the outfield wall in Miami.

With Mackanin committed to giving Altherr playing time, it will be interesting to see how the skipper divides up playing time with the remaining outfielders, especially when Bourjos recovers. Bourjos was a trade candidate before his injury. He could still be moved in a waiver deal once he’s healthy in August. Tyler Goeddel, Cody Asche and Jimmy Paredes also play corner outfield spots and much heralded prospect Nick Williams is expected to be here at some point (see Future Phillies Report).

Asche is walking a tightrope. He entered Thursday night’s game mired in a 4-for-51 skid and Mackanin seems to be losing patience.

“As I said earlier in the season, this is a very big year for Cody to prove that he can be part of the future and he needs to step it up,” Mackanin said.

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Heading into his 13th season, Jason Peters has experienced a lot during his exceptional NFL career. So when the eight-time Pro Bowler says head coach Doug Pederson is more respectful of veteran players than the previous regime under Chip Kelly, you take notice.

"I think so," Peters stated frankly on Thursday at training camp (see Day 4 notes). "The last couple years, there wasn't a lot of vets, and any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him.

"Doug was a player here, he understands veteran players and he understands the game, so I think it's better."

Addressing the media for the first time since last season, Peters faced a series of questions about how Pederson differs from his unique predecessor. Schemes and philosophies were topics of discussion, as well, but perhaps the sharpest criticism levied by Peters was Kelly's lack of appreciation for what an NFL player goes through to be ready on Sunday.

"Any time you've got a coach who's been there, done that, he knows about the trenches and he knows about the two-a-days, it definitely helps with a veteran team as a whole," Peters said.

Peters admitted Kelly's practices took their toll on players. If that sounds like a familiar complaint, it's probably because former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams voiced a similar opinion in 2014. On Thursday, Peters echoed and expanded upon Williams' sentiments.

"The same practices that we did in training camp were the same spring practices, exactly the same, so it's pretty much we had training camp the whole offseason," Peters said. "Even OTAs were the same exact practice. It kind of wore us down."

Peters also maintained the unusual practice schedule during the regular season was no help, either.

Most teams practice Monday and take Tuesday off. Kelly did the opposite, so there was no real break leading up to gameday.

"We practiced on Tuesdays when Chip was here, and you felt it on Sundays," Peters said. "I did anyway."

Pederson has mentioned on several occasions the Eagles intend to do everything they can to keep Peters fresh and prepared for Sundays this season, which the 34-year-old says is "just being smart." One way that could manifest itself is an occasional day off during the week.

Although Peters' criticisms of Kelly weren't limited to the workload on veterans, the left tackle indicated the constant uptempo attack may not have done the offense many favors, either.

"If you run 100 times in a row, back to back to back, don't you think your 50th time you're going to be a little slower?" Peters asked. "But if you get a little bit of a rest, you're going to be a little bit faster.

"It's give and take. When you go back to the huddle and you get that wind, you're just a little stronger when you go back to the line, so I think it will help."

Peters added that the simplicity and predictability of Kelly's system became a problem, as well.

"I mean, this is the National Football League, and if the running back is to the left and you're running the zone read, where do you think the ball is going?" Peters asked rhetorically. "To the right.

"They caught up to us. We had some good years there back to back, then last year we had that down year. We just needed to change a little bit up, especially with [quarterback Sam Bradford] back there. They know he's not gonna run it, so it kind of put our hands behind our back."

While Peters believes the return to a more sophisticated, traditional NFL offense under Pederson — one that uses snap counts and chip blocks to help its offensive linemen — will be an enormous improvement for the Eagles.

Peters knows it's on the players to do a better job in 2016, too. At the same time, he feels as though the deck might've been just a little stacked against them.

"We can't really blame it on that, we're professionals," Peters said.

"[The coaches] call the play, and we execute it. But when the [opponents] know, and they're professionals too, and they know what the play is, it's tough."