Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Tough assignment for Aaron Nola

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Tough assignment for Aaron Nola

Phillies (3-6) at Nationals (5-4)
4:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies open up a road series in D.C. after getting Thursday off to recover from that ugly series against the Mets.

It's the second straight weekend the Phillies are facing the Nats. They won two of three games last week at Citizens Bank Park with a 17-run outburst Saturday and a walk-off win Sunday.

Let's check out the matchup:

1. No early favors
The schedule-makers made things pretty rough on the Phillies early in the season.

With two series apiece against the Nationals and Mets in early April, the Phils will have played 12 of their first 15 games against those two NL contenders.

At the end of April (29-30), they're in L.A. to face the Dodgers. Following that is a four-game series on the road against the reigning champion Cubs, then three more with the Nationals at home.

The mid- and late-summer schedule eases up, but this is setting the Phillies up for a potentially huge hole.

The worst thing about facing the Nats and Mets so often early in the year is that pitching is usually ahead of hitting in April and those two teams each have multiple aces.

It's one thing to face an offensive juggernaut because big bats can be shut down on any given night. But when you know you're entering multiple series against Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg so early it can affect a team's confidence. The players wouldn't admit it but they know how daunting the task is.

The Phils drew Scherzer and Strasburg last weekend, then deGrom and Harvey earlier this week. This weekend they'll see Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, then in the upcoming Mets series they'll face Syndergaard.

2. Nola's second start
Aaron Nola faces the Nationals for the second straight start. He pitched well last Saturday, allowing three runs over six innings with seven strikeouts. 

Nola induced 13 swinging strikes in 89 pitches (a solid number) but if there was a troubling sign it was his low number of first-pitch strikes -- he threw just 13 to the 24 batters he faced.

Nola was aided, of course, by the Phillies' 12-run first inning. Any pitcher welcomes that kind of run support because you then get to attack, attack, attack. You don't need to hit perfect spots because it would require three grand slams to tie it up.

But wiggle room aside, Nola's stuff looked sharp in his season debut. His two-seam fastball was dancing back toward the outside corner against right-handed hitters and his curveball had that knee-buckling break we've become accustomed to.

It's never easy to face the same team twice in a week and it's even harder when it's an offense as loaded as Washington's. 

Bryce Harper is 8 for 14 lifetime off Nola with two home runs. Daniel Murphy is 6 for 16 with three doubles, a triple and a homer. Jayson Werth is 6 for 17 with two homers. 

All told, current Nats have hit .312 off Nola with an .896 OPS. He's made seven starts against the Nats and gone 1-3 with a 5.26 ERA.

3. Strasburg again
The Phillies hit Strasburg better last week in South Philly than they ever have, scoring three runs off him in seven innings. They did it by taking advantage of their few run-scoring opportunities and by running the bases well. Tommy Joseph stole his second career base and scored on a single. Cesar Hernandez legged out an infield hit to plate the second run, and he scored from first on Howie Kendrick's double. All three runs came with two outs.

Maikel Franco was hitless in the game against Strasburg but had three quality plate appearances against him, walking twice and lining out sharply to center field. On Wednesday night, after his grand slam, Franco said that the game against Strasburg was got him going.

"I see Strasburg well, I think I'm 3 for 10 with a homer and two walks," Franco said. You're actually 3 for 11, but we'll let it slide, Maik.

Since that game against Strasburg, Franco has gone 5 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs. The season is extremely young but Franco is seeing more pitches than ever before and swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone.

4. Remember Ryan?
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is on fire. Through nine games, he's gone 13 for 34 (.382) with three doubles and three home runs. 

It's a welcome sign for Washington's offense because Zimmerman hasn't been an impactful offensive player since 2013. He hit .218 in 2016, missed 67 games in 2015 and missed 101 games in 2014.

Once upon a time, Zimmerman was the face of the Nats' franchise. He's since slid behind Harper and Murphy in the pecking order, but when Washington has all four of Harper, Murphy, Zimmerman and Werth going, this is an almost impossible lineup to shut down. Two lefties and two righties, all of whom have plate discipline and power.

It was Zimmerman's three-run home run last weekend that ended Jeanmar Gomez's run as the Phillies' closer.

Zimmerman has played basically a full major-league season against the Phillies (163 career games). In those 696 plate appearances, he's hit .266/.329/.453 with 48 doubles, 21 home runs and 92 RBIs. His numbers vs. the Phils were much better a few years ago; since 2015, he's hit just .200 in 105 at-bats.

5. This and that
• The Phillies' pitching staff has been awful with two strikes. They've allowed nine home runs with two strikes and no other team has allowed more than six.

Their opponents' slugging percentage with two strikes is .443 and the next-worst team is at .364.

However, the Phillies also have the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors with two strikes (behind the Cubs). It's been all or nothing.

• Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris and Pat Neshek have combined to pitch 12 scoreless innings so far this season with 15 strikeouts. They've allowed just 10 baserunners. The back-end of the bullpen is the unquestioned strength of this team -- it's just a matter of getting the game into their hands with the lead.

• All three games this weekend in D.C. are day games: 4:05 this afternoon, 1:05 on Saturday and 1:35 on Sunday.

• The Phillies are 14-27 against the Nats since 2014.

• Standard 2017 Phillies lineup today:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Howie Kendrick, LF
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Adam Eaton, CF
2. Anthony Rendon, 3B
3. Bryce Harper, RF
4. Daniel Murphy, 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
6. Jayson Werth, LF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Wilmer Difo, SS
9. Stephen Strasburg, P

Best of MLB: Dodgers lose injured Clayton Kershaw, beat Braves in 10 innings

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Best of MLB: Dodgers lose injured Clayton Kershaw, beat Braves in 10 innings

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw left after two innings with a back injury, but the Los Angeles Dodgers overcame a blown save by Kenley Jansen to beat the Atlanta Braves 5-4 on Sunday on Logan Forsythe's bases-loaded single in the 10th.

Kershaw, unbeaten in 15 consecutive starts, left after 21 pitches because of right low back tightness.

Jansen entered with a 3-1 lead and got the final out of the eighth, but gave up a three-run homer to Matt Adams in the ninth, tying the game at 4-all.

Forsythe singled up the middle after Cody Bellinger was intentionally walked by Jim Johnson (6-2) to load the bases.

Brandon Morrow (3-0) got the win after retiring the side in the top of the 10th.

Austin Barnes hit a three-run homer in the fourth for the Dodgers (see full recap).

Britton gets AL consecutive saves record as Orioles beat Astros
BALTIMORE -- Zach Britton set an American League record by converting his 55th consecutive save opportunity, blanking the Houston Astros in the ninth inning the seal the Baltimore Orioles' 9-7 victory on Sunday.

Britton struck out the first two batters and issued a walk before pinch-hitter George Springer bounced into a force play to end it.

Britton broke the AL mark held by Tom Gordon, who notched 54 straight saves with Boston from 1998-99. Britton started his run on Oct. 1, 2015, added 47 in a row last season and is 6 for 6 this year.

The major league record of 84 is held by Eric Gagne of the Dodgers from 2002-04. Saves became an official statistic in 1969.

Britton earned his fifth save on April 14 and endured two months on the disabled list with a strained left forearm before returning on July 5 (see full recap).

Nationals beat D-backs but lose Strasburg to injury
PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip (see full recap).

Yankees win 1st series in 6 weeks, beat Mariners
SEATTLE -- The New York Yankees won a series for the first time in six weeks when Aroldis Chapman struck out Ben Gamel with a runner on to preserve a 6-4 victory over Seattle on Sunday, their third win in four games against the Mariners this weekend.

The Yankees had been 0-8-2 in series since sweeping Baltimore on June 9-11. New York had lost 13 straight games with a chance to win a series.

After Seattle overcame a 3-0 deficit with a four-run fourth inning against Caleb Smith, Brett Gardner hit a tying, bases-loaded single in the sixth and Clint Frazier followed with a two-run double off former Yankee James Pazos (2-3).

Didi Gregorius had his first career multihomer game with solo shots in the second and fourth innings for New York, both on 0-1 pitches from Yovani Gallardo. Gregorius has 14 home runs.

Gardner opened the game with his 17th home run.

A converted starter pitching on consecutive days for the first time in big league career, Chad Green (1-0) struck out three in 2 1/3 perfect innings. Dellin Betances and David Robertson each threw a hitless inning, and Chapman had another shaky finish for his 11th save (see full recap).

Nationals' GCL affiliate pitch no-hitter in both games of doubleheader
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Washington Nationals' rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate pitched seven-inning no-hitters in both ends of a doubleheader Sunday.

Facing the GCL Marlins at the teams' shared spring training home, right-handed prospect Joan Baez opened the first game with six innings, allowing a walk and striking out seven. Jose Jimenez walked one in the seventh to close a 4-0 victory.

Baez is among the organization's top pitching prospects. He improved to 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in four appearances (three starts) with the GCL Nationals.

In the second game, Jared Johnson walked one in four innings, and Gilberto Chu closed with three perfect innings in a 1-0 win. It was only the second pro start for Johnson, a 17th-round draft pick last month from Palm Beach State Junior College.

They were the first no-hitters in the GCL this season.

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

BOX SCORE

Though they still have the worst record in the majors by 3½ games, the 34-62 Phillies aren't playing like the worst team in baseball right now.

Not from an offensive standpoint, not from a starting pitching standpoint, not from a bullpen standpoint.

The Phils' offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers, their fourth win in five games and sixth in the last 10 (see Instant Replay).

Nick Williams homered again, Howie Kendrick had a very Howie Kendrick-like at-bat with the bases loaded, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the trio of Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Luis Garcia sealed the win.

The Phillies have scored at least five runs in seven straight games, which is something none of their recent division-winning teams did in a single season. It's their longest such streak since May 31-June 7, 2005.

Their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in six of the last eight games.

And the Phils' bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

A lot of things are clicking right now for a team that probably can't play worse than it did in the first half. The Phils' record remains hideous, but there are actually four teams with worse run differentials: the Reds, Blue Jays, Giants and Padres.

"My first year here as a coach was '09, and in no way am I comparing ourselves to that team, but it was reminiscent the way we've been swinging the bats of us coming back and coming from behind and catching up and beating other teams," Pete Mackanin said. "It reminds me to a certain degree."

For much of the season, Mackanin has walked into the Phillies' media room after a loss and said that his hitters aren't living up to their standard. For much of the season, the Phillies have made quick outs and life easy for the opposing pitcher. 

But with Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez back from the DL, with Odubel Herrera hitting .331 since June 1, with Maikel Franco walking as much as he's struck out the last 35 games, and with Williams' power and energy rubbing off on the rest of the team, many different Phillies are playing like they have something to prove.

"Everybody is playing for a job next year," Mackanin said. "Everybody is playing to be part of our future and I think the guys are competing among themselves. It's good to see. Everybody's more aggressive. They're into the games."

The energy added by Williams' arrival on June 30 has been impossible to ignore, though it's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. Is there added energy because he and so many other guys started hitting, or are they hitting because there's a more positive vibe in the clubhouse and dugout?

"I like to do whatever I can to start the momentum or get guys going," Williams said. "If I do something exciting, they're like, 'Oh, he's playing hard.' But everyone's been hitting and everyone's been just playing the game right and just doing all the little things and that's how we've been able to come out with some victories.

"In close spots with the hitting, we've been able to knock a lot of guys in. It's just that hitting's contagious. I always say when one guy does it, why can't the next? That's how I think of it."

The biggest spot in Sunday's game came with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. With the game tied, the Brewers switched pitchers and Kendrick quickly found himself down 0-2 before singling up the middle to score two runs.

Kendrick has missed 60 games this season and it's been frustrating for him because he's been so locked-in when he's played. After picking up two more hits Sunday, he's up to .353 with an .873 OPS. His numbers are rarely sexy because he averages about 10 home runs per season, but a versatile, perennial .290 hitter has value. It's why the Phillies' offseason acquisition of Kendrick made sense and it's why he figures to have some trade value even though Sunday was just his 36th game of the year.

"Not only is he a good hitter but he plays solid defense out there," Mackanin said. "He doesn't have the greatest range but it's not bad. He's average to maybe a tick above average. 

"I'm sure there's a lot of interest in a lot of our guys, (Pat) Neshek, [Kendrick], even (Joaquin) Benoit, (Daniel) Nava. We'll wait and see."

The non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and general manager Matt Klentak expects there to be some movement. The Phils' two best trade chips are Kendrick and Neshek and both had productive weekends. Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to lower his ERA to 1.12. He's allowed runs in just two of 43 appearances.

And Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, going 4 for 10 since returning Friday from a hamstring strain.

"If I were scouting for another organization I'd recommend him," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "I'd put an acquire (label) on him."

We'll soon see what that acquire label nets the Phillies. The return won't be huge, but trading Kendrick will allow the Phils to add another young player with upside and open a spot back up for Aaron Altherr, who could return from the DL as early as Wednesday.