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

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Zach Eflin, Phillies aim for first series win since April

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Zach Eflin, Phillies aim for first series win since April

Phillies (17-30) vs. Reds (23-25)
1:35 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App.

Tommy Joseph came through as the Phillies' hero on Saturday with his second walk-off single in three days. It was just the Phillies' sixth win in their last 27 games, but the victory allows the Phillies an opportunity to take the series with the Reds.

Zach Eflin will take the hill for Sunday afternoon's start and will oppose Scott Feldman, the 'ace' for the Reds this season.

Here are five things to know for Sunday's game:

1. What a relief
It may have crept up on you, but the Phillies' bullpen is hot right now -- to the tune of 19 2/3 straight scoreless innings hot.

The Phils' relief corps came through with 3 2/3 more scoreless on Saturday to back up starter Jerad Eickhoff and give the bats a chance to walk off. After Joaquin Benoit expressed public frustration with the lack of roles in the 'pen, the team has slowly but surely found a pecking order for its back-end. With Hector Neris entrenched as closer, Benoit now serves as the primary setup man while Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos have also been in line for high-leverage innings.

Neris has allowed just one run over 10 2/3 this month after closing last month with that back-to-back-to-back home run implosion in Los Angeles. He's back to his bread and butter -- setting up hitters with his fastball before unleashing his nasty splitter, which he used to retire Joey Votto in Saturday's ninth inning.

Benoit has seven consecutive scoreless one-inning performances. He's looking more and more like the reliever the Phillies thought they were getting when they signed him in the offseason. Neshek has five straight scoreless appearances since giving up his first runs of the season two weeks ago during the doubleheader with the Nationals. Both setup men are in line for possible trades this season and could get the Phillies something in return.

And if the rotation continues to stumble (averaging 5.38 innings per start with an ERA above 6.00 in May), the bullpen could be a backbone to keep the team respectable.

2. Needing a better effort from Eflin
One starter who is certainly struggling is Eflin, who needs to rebound after a couple poor starts.

His last two starts have been nothing short of disasters. In 10 innings, he's allowed 15 runs on 21 hits while surrendering three home runs. The appearances -- losses to the Rangers and Rockies -- account for the worst two-start stretch of his career.

Through seven starts, Eflin has an ERA of 5.36. He was coming off a string of four consecutive quality starts before this late-May swoon and had an ERA of 2.81 while averaging 6.4 innings per start.

The 6-foot-5 righty relies heavily on his sinker, so he's going to have a lot of balls put in play. However, he simply can't survive with home runs. He needs to keep the ball on the ground, especially against the slugging Reds, who have four batters with at least 10 home runs.

There's no doubt that Eflin could pitch his way out of the rotation if he can't turn things around. He's only 23 and has made just 18 MLB starts. However, pitching through his struggles in the majors is the right way to go. This is a pitcher who had a 2.81 ERA just two weeks ago and two bad starts aren't worth an overreaction.

None of his 18 career starts came against the Reds and he has not faced anyone currently on Cincy's roster.

3. The Reds' ace?
Believe or not, the Phillies don't have the worst rotation ERA in baseball. That belongs to the Reds, whose starters sport a combined 5.74 heading into Sunday's rubber match in South Philly.

In 48 games, they've allowed 53 home runs and 154 earned runs. They've walked 109 batters and have the third fewest strikeouts (185) of any staff.

So with an only OK ERA of 3.99, Scott Feldman is actually the staff ace. At 34 years old, he's played for six different teams and had middling results at each stop. For his career, he is 74-81 with a 4.38 ERA.

This season, he has a career-worst walk rate, but has limited hits and home runs to keep teams off the board. On May 7, he threw a four-hit shutout against the Giants and is coming off a six-inning, one-run start against the Indians. He struck out a season-high nine in that game.

The Phillies are more than familiar with the righty as they faced him on opening day in Cincinnati. Feldman lasted just 4 2/3 innings and gave up three runs, including home runs to both Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis. It was his only ever start against the Phillies as he's spent the majority of his career in the American League.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Joseph has been the Phillies' saving grace recently. In both games he finished with walk-off singles, he also hit a home run and he's looking more and more like the hitter that took the Phils' lineup by storm last summer.

Reds: Votto is undoubtedly one of the best hitters in baseball. The 33-year-old Canadian is 0 for 7 with a walk in this series but has a .413 OBP this season with more walks (36) than strikeouts (26).

5. This and that
• Howie Kendrick made his fourth rehab appearance on Saturday with Triple A Lehigh Valley. He went 1 for 5 and played the full game at third base.

• The Phillies have not won consecutive games since their six-game win streak concluded on April 27.

• The Phils lost their last eight series, beginning in Los Angeles against the Dodgers on April 28-30.

• The Phillies are 9-11 in one-run games. They were 28-23 in those contests last year.

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick on Saturday night made his fourth rehab appearance in Triple A during Lehigh Valley's 13-1 rout of the Louisville Bats in Allentown.

Kendrick went 1 for 5 with a run scored and three strikeouts. He also grounded into a double play and left two runners in scoring position.

It was his second rehab game playing third base. He played third during his appearance in the IronPigs' 8-4 loss Thursday to the Indianapolis Indians. He was 0 for 1 in three plate appearances with a run scored and was hit by a pitch twice (see story).

The Phillies' plan for Kendrick was to have him play a minimum four games at Lehigh Valley. He played left field in two games and third base twice. Pete Mackanin said Wednesday that Kendrick would also get a game at first base but he hasn't gotten a game at first yet.

There is a chance Kendrick could be recalled Sunday before the Phillies’ series finale against the Cincinnati Reds depending on how he feels.

Kendrick has been sidelined since April 15 with an oblique strain. In 10 games before the injury, Kendrick went 13 for 39 (.333) with five extra-base hits and four walks while exclusively playing left field.