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

Hurts so good: Phillies win third straight with a wacky walkoff

Hurts so good: Phillies win third straight with a wacky walkoff

BOX SCORE

Brock Stassi's toe hurt.
 
Maikel Franco's ribs and head hurt.
 
Pain never felt so good.
 
The Phillies pulled off their most dramatic win of the young season when they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning to beat the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, at chilly Citizens Bank Park on Saturday night (see Instant Replay).
 
Franco completed a three-RBI night when he smacked a two-out, two-run, bases-loaded single to right to give the Phillies the walk-off win. It was the Phillies' third straight win and fifth in the last seven games as they improved to 8-9 with a chance to sweep a series and even their record at .500 on Sunday afternoon.
 
Franco will be in the lineup.
 
But he might need a couple of Advil to get going.
 
After his game-winning hit, Franco was hilariously chased into right field by his euphoric teammates. The Phillies third baseman absorbed a beat down with Andres Blanco delivering a blow to the top of Franco's head.
 
"You see that -- boom!" Blanco said in the happy clubhouse after that game.  
 
Franco did more than see it.

He felt it.
 
"Whitey got me," he said, laughing and pointing to his head and ribs. "My body is screaming right now."
 
Across the clubhouse, Stassi was feeling Franco's pain. His foot got stepped on during the happy scrum.
 
"My toe is killing me," he said with a laugh.
 
Stassi, too, might need an Advil before Sunday's game. He has a good chance to be in the lineup at first base because Tommy Joseph seems like a candidate for a day off after a tough night. Joseph made a costly throwing error in the top of the 10th inning that helped the Braves take a 3-2 lead.
 
Stassi helped rescue the Phillies from that deficit. His 10th inning single was the first of three one-out hits that the Phils collected against Braves' closer Jim Johnson. With the bases loaded, Johnson made Odubel Herrera look bad with a swinging strikeout for the second out. That brought up Franco. New hitting coach Matt Stairs is constantly encouraging Franco to use the whole field and that's just what the cleanup man did in lacing a liner to the warning track in right.

"To right field! How 'bout that," manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
It was Franco's second single of the night. He would have been awarded a game-winning double if he had reached second base. But, alas, he was chased into right field.
 
In the clubhouse after the game, Franco was told by a club official that he could have had a double had he touched second.
 
Franco's eyes widened in disbelief.
 
"Ah, Mikey!" he said, scolding himself.
 
Then he laughed.
 
Across the clubhouse, Joseph could laugh about the miscue that saw him throw to an empty third base after a sacrifice bunt in the 10th. With everything moving fast, he mistook shortstop Freddy Galvis for a baserunner as Galvis streaked to cover third.
 
Joseph's error put a man on third and the Braves scored the go-ahead run on an infield hit.
 
The ironic part about Joseph's error was the Phillies played excellent defense -- Herrera and Aaron Altherr made great catches in the outfield and Galvis was Galvis at short -- until the 10th.
 
They pitched well, too, from starter Jerad Eickhoff's five innings of one-run ball to the stingy relief work of Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia and Pat Neshek. They teamed on three shutout innings.
 
With his top late-game tandem of Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris in need of a night off, Mackanin asked Edubray Ramos to close it out. Ramos struck out the first two batters in the ninth and was one out away from his first big-league save when Brandon Phillips unloaded on a hanging slider to tie the game at 2-2.
 
Ramos rebounded and got the final out of the inning. As he walked off the field, he covered his mouth with his glove and shouted. Best guess: He said a naughty word. But ultimately his teammates got him off the hook. Parts of it were pretty. Parts of it were ugly. But when the night was over, the Phillies had a win.
 
"It was really a wacky game," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We played well overall, then there was a flurry of activity at the end."
 
Mackanin reached for a bottle of water.
 
"I'm going to drink more of this Smart Water," he said. "It's a happy day."

Best of MLB: Gonzalez, Nationals beat Mets 3-1 for 6th straight win

Best of MLB: Gonzalez, Nationals beat Mets 3-1 for 6th straight win

NEW YORK -- Gio Gonzalez mentioned the tasty Latin food served in the visitors' clubhouse. And the airplanes that fly overhead. And the pretty features of the ballpark.

But if there's a real reason why the Washington lefty is so successful at Citi Field, he isn't saying.

"Any secrets?" he offered. "No."

Gonzalez pitched no-hit ball into the sixth inning to win again at the Mets' stadium, and the Nationals beat New York 3-1 on a drizzly Saturday for their sixth straight victory (see full recap).

Contreras' slam powers Arrieta, Cubs to 12-8 win over Reds
CINCINNATI -- After a sputtering start, the Cubs' offense is finally rolling. And it's no surprise that they're breaking out at Great American Ball Park, a place that's just their style.

Wilson Contreras hit his first career grand slam and Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward added three-run shots on Saturday, powering Chicago to a 12-8 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Jake Arrieta (3-0) returned to the mound where he threw his second career no-hitter last April 21 and struggled mightily at the outset, giving up two homers in the first inning. Chicago's offense pulled him through with another homer-filled game at Great American Ball Park. Arrieta helped with an RBI triple (see full recap).

Homers by Mancini, Schoop carry Orioles past Red Sox 4-2
BALTIMORE -- Just when it appeared Steven Wright had finally gained command of his fluttering knuckleball, the Baltimore Orioles found their groove.

The result: Another early exit for the 2016 All-Star in Boston's 4-2 loss Saturday night.

Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop homered in succession off Wright, Jayson Aquino won his first big league start and the Orioles used one big inning to secure their fourth straight victory (see full recap).

Simmons belts grand slam to lead Angels past Blue Jays 5-4
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Andrelton Simmons hit a tiebreaking grand slam, Tyler Skaggs pitched into the eighth inning and the Los Angeles Angels held off the slumping Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 Saturday night.

Simmons cleared the bases in the third inning off Casey Lawrence (0-2) for his second career grand slam, helping the Angels snap a three-game losing streak and win for the second time in 11 games.

Skaggs (1-1) gave up a run in the first but settled down to hold the Blue Jays to five hits over the next six innings, getting the Blue Jays to hit into three double plays along the way. He was lifted after Ryan Goins doubled to lead off the eighth (see full recap).