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)

Phillies beat writer promises to 'eat his shoe' if Tim Tebow ever plays in MLB

Phillies beat writer promises to 'eat his shoe' if Tim Tebow ever plays in MLB

The Philadelphia Phillies are among the teams who will go give Tim Tebow a look during his baseball workout for roughly 20 MLB teams.

That's according to Phillies beat writer Jim Salisbury who writes that the chances of Tebow making it to Major League Baseball as "extremely thin."

Then, when appearing on Philly Sports Talk on Tuesday evening, he tossed in the added bonus of shoe eating.

"I think this is more of a due dillegence thing just to say that you were there," Salisbury told Michael Barkann. "This guy hasn't played baseball in more than a decade. Before that it wasn't like he was a standout. He was more of a tools plalyer, a good athlete."

"If he ever plays a day in the big leagues I will eat my shoe," Salisbury said.

I think it's safe to say we are all pulling really hard for Timmy to make it now.

Phillies-White Sox 5 things: Can Phils pound James Shields like rest of MLB?

Phillies-White Sox 5 things: Can Phils pound James Shields like rest of MLB?

Phillies (58-68) at White Sox (60-64)
8:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies' brief two-game series with the White Sox ends tonight at U.S. Cellular Field. The Phils were pounded, 9-1, on Tuesday as they lost for the fifth time in seven games. They've been outscored 50-20 in those seven games.

Let's take a look at the series finale:

1. Get 'em through six
The Phillies turn to Jerad Eickhoff, who has been the most consistent of their many young right-handers. Eickhoff is 8-12 with a 3.91 ERA, and he's pitched at least six innings in 16 of his 25 starts.

That's notable at the moment because the Phillies aren't getting much length from any of their other young starters. Jake Thompson has averaged fewer than five innings in his four starts. Vince Velasquez is averaging 5.1 innings over his last four. Adam Morgan has averaged 4.3.

Unlike the others, Eickhoff has progressed rather than regressed this season. He hit a rough patch in April and early May and the struggles taught him to use his slider more. He went from being a three-pitch pitcher to a four-pitch pitcher, and the success of his slider made his fastball, sinker and curveball more effective.

That's the kind of adjustment a young pitcher needs to make. The adjustments for the others are pretty clear: Velasquez needs to mix his pitches better and get outs earlier in counts, while Thompson needs to throw more first-pitch strikes and get his slider below waist level.

Games in AL parks are always tougher on pitchers because of the DH, but Eickhoff has thrown well in both of his interleague starts in AL stadiums this season. He allowed one earned run in six innings at Target Field in Minnesota and pitched six shutout innings at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

It should benefit him that these White Sox hitters have never seen him. Players who don't have experience against Eickhoff tend to be frozen by his big hook.

2. Benefit of fresh arms
The Phillies' bullpen has been taxed lately because of the injuries and ineffectiveness of the starting rotation. Phils relievers have pitched an average of 3.9 innings per game in August. The starters have accounted for only 57 percent of the innings pitched. Not good.

Thankfully, the Phillies have been able to turn to somewhat fresh relievers. 

Edubray Ramos has made 23 appearances in July and August and shown flashes. He's struck out 29 and walked just six in 25⅓ innings this season. 

Michael Mariot, who missed the first six weeks of the season with an ankle injury, has a 3.24 ERA and has allowed just four baserunners in 8⅓ innings.

Manager Pete Mackanin spoke last week about wanting a few more relievers when rosters expand on Sept. 1. It would allow the Phillies to give Hector Neris more rest. Neris hasn't exactly been overworked — he's made 63 appearances and is on pace for 81 — but it could only help to lessen his load as the season nears its conclusion.

Neris continues to dominate, by the way. He's pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings in a row with 14 strikeouts. In 64⅓ innings this season, he has a 2.24 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 82 strikeouts and 18 walks. His opponents have hit .195.

3. Not the same James
The Phillies face veteran right-hander James Shields, who is having by far the worst year of his career. Shields, who began the year with the Padres before being traded at the beginning of June, is 5-15 with a 5.98 ERA. 

His numbers are even worse with Chicago — 3-8 with a 7.62 ERA and 1.82 WHIP. Everyone's pounding him — lefties, righties, good teams, bad teams. Shields' opponents have hit .297 with a .902 OPS. It's caused him to shy away from contact more and his walk rate has risen from 2.3 per nine in his previous 10 seasons to 4.3 this year.

Most teams stayed away from Shields in free agency prior to 2015 because of all the wear and tear on his arm. He was about to turn 33, and he had pitched an average of 223 innings over an eight-year span heading into that offseason. (He also pitched 60 total innings in the playoffs during those years.)

Those concerns appear to have been warranted, as Shields' stuff has declined in his mid-30s. Shields' fastball averaged 92.3 mph from 2012 to 2014 and is down to 90.4 this season. 

His changeup has always been his best pitch, even in recent years. From 2012 to 2015, his opponents hit .215 in 1,044 at-bats ending in a changeup. This season they've hit .263 with 14 extra-base hits, six of which were homers.

The Phillies saw Shields in the 2008 World Series. That was his third big-league season. A few Phils have hit him well — Odubel Herrera is 4 for 6; Peter Bourjos is 5 for 10 with a double and a homer.

4. Platooning Herrera?
Herrera has sat against most left-handed starting pitchers recently. Mackanin and the Phillies are trying to get him back to hitting the way he was earlier in the season, when he was seeing a ton of pitches and utilizing the opposite field. He hit .294 with a .378 on-base percentage in the first half but has hit .252 with a .321 OBP since the All-Star break.

Interestingly, Herrera fared well last season against lefties. He hit .293 against them in 123 at-bats as a rookie. In 2016, he's hit .225 against them in 120 at-bats. But a lot of those failures have come against left-handed relievers, who by nature are stingier against same-handed hitters because that's their specialty. 

Herrera, whose bat was missing from Tuesday's lineup against tough lefty Carlos Rodon, is actually hitting .309 (25 for 81) with a .398 OBP this season vs. left-handed starters. Against lefty relievers, he's 2 for 39.

5. Cell tower power 
U.S. Cellular Field is the only active big-league stadium in which Ryan Howard has never played. He sat last night but is expected to start tonight against the right-hander Shields.

Howard, who has taken Shields deep before, has homered in 25 of the 33 parks he's played in. If he hits one out tonight, that would be 26. 

It's not out of the realm of possibility given how locked in Howard has been. Over his last 13 games, he's 16 for 43 (.375) with four doubles, five homers and 13 RBIs. He's third in the majors in slugging percentage (.814) since July 29, behind only Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon.

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union at Crew
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Despite being dominated by Toronto FC on Saturday, the Union (9-9-7) managed to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, thanks to a handful of fortunate results around the league. But if the club wants to better its odds for the postseason, it needs to take care of business at Mapfre Stadium Wednesday night against the Columbus Crew (4-8-11).

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Playoff push
It hasn’t been a convincing few weeks for the Union. Although the club still sits fourth in the Eastern Conference despite one win in its last six games, it needs points to stay afloat. That quest begins Wednesday against the Crew.

“The focus is getting points,” Union defender Richie Marquez said. “For us, home or away, we need three points because we need to solidify that playoff spot.”

As of now the Union are in snug playoff position with 34 points — one ahead of the Montreal Impact and six in front of D.C. United and Orlando City for the sixth and final playoff spot. On the plus side, the club is one point behind the New York Red Bulls with a game in hand.

“It’s a push to get into the playoffs and try to see how high we can end up in the table,” Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s important we don’t look too much at the standings because anything can happen in this league. It’s all really tight. It’s important we go to Columbus with the right mentality and come back to Philly with three points.”

2. Coming off a loss
Speaking of the playoff push, the Union’s dream of being a top-two seed in the East took a major hit Saturday in a 3-1 bashing by Toronto FC. The loss put Toronto up six and New York City FC up seven on the Union. 

Worst of all, it crushed all Union momentum coming out of a 4-0 win over the New England Revolution a week prior. Still, the club maintains its confidence heading into Wednesday.

“I feel good about this team and the players we have,” Bedoya said. “The goals we gave up were too easy. We have talent on this team, but there’s little things we have to fix. Once we get those right, we’ll be tough to break down.” 

As Jim Curtin explained, the short turnaround from Saturday actually works in the Union’s favor. 

“We were smart with how we managed the past two days in terms of getting the guys massages, taking care of their bodies, eating right and getting enough sleep,” he said. “They’ll be ready to go, they’re itching to get the bad taste out of their mouth after the Toronto game.”

3. Win-starved Crew
With the help of Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain, the Crew took down the floundering Revolution over the weekend. But that’s nothing to celebrate over. It was just the club’s fourth win of the season and second since May 28. 

The Crew are currently closer to having the lowest point total in MLS than a playoff spot.

“It’s been tough,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a team that I believe in deeply but it’s natural that confidence dips when you don’t get the results. It’s about believing in our playing style and fine-tuning things, approving in some areas. I think we did that in the last game.” 

Though the Crew attempt to climb out of the basement Wednesday, they know what they are up against. The Union took the first season meeting against the Crew, 2-1, and the second, 3-2. 

“They added Bedoya, who is a quality player,” Berhalter said. “Other than that, it’s similar to what they’ve been doing all year with [C.J.] Sapong and talented players behind him. Bedoya makes a good difference there, but they are a solid group and they’ll play with intensity. From our side, we’ll have to be smart how we approach the game.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Facing the Crew twice this season, the Union have five goals. Chris Pontius has three of them. The Union forward scored the brace on March 12, then buried another on June 1. 

Crew: MLS rookie Ola Kamara leads the Crew with 10 goals, including one against the Union on June 1. Since May 28, the forward has 10 goals and one assist in 12 games.

5. This and that
• Facing the Crew has always been tough for the Union. Including two wins this season, the Union are 6-10-1 against the Crew all-time.

• The Union have only suffered back-to-back losses twice this season, and both times it happened in the club’s last 10 games.

• Of Kamara’s 10 goals this season, six have come at home. 

• The first-ever meeting between the Union and Crew happened on Aug. 5, 2010, and was a 2-1 loss for the Union. Sebastien Le Toux scored a penalty kick but Steven Lenhart buried the brace.