Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Vince Velasquez-Max Scherzer in the home opener

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Vince Velasquez-Max Scherzer in the home opener

Phillies vs. Nationals
3:05 p.m. on NBC10; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app

It should be chilly and windy in South Philly on Friday afternoon for the Phillies' home opener, but it looks like the rain will stay away. 

Let's dive into the first divisional series of the season:

1. A more economical Velasquez?
Vince Velasquez makes his season debut against a Nationals team he faced just once last season and beat, allowing three runs in six innings.

Velasquez had a decent first year with the Phillies in 2016, going 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in 24 starts, striking out 152 and walking 45 in 131 innings. He was extremely effective in April, June and July but struggled badly in May and August.

The trend for Velasquez as the season wore on was that he was beaten up by the good teams and he held the bad teams in check.

His first rough patch came at the end of May, when he allowed five home runs and 10 runs in 8 2/3 innings in road games against the Tigers and Cubs. He hit the DL shortly thereafter.

In August, he stumbled in three consecutive starts against the Dodgers and Cardinals, allowing 19 runs in 16 1/3 innings as his ERA soared from 3.33 to 4.31.

With Velasquez last season, the problem was often a high pitch count and an early exit. He pitched more than six innings only three times, and he lasted less than six innings 11 times.

Velasquez racks up strikeouts and knows that if he can get to two strikes he has the stuff to put a hitter away. But the deeper you go into counts, the more pitches you throw and the quicker the hook becomes.

Velasquez talked last spring about wanting to throw more sinkers to get groundballs early in counts. He ended up using that pitch just 9.6 percent of the time.

He threw his four-seam fastball 56 percent of the time last season. Velasquez has a good fastball-changeup combination, and at times he flashes an impressive curveball, but he struggled to locate that pitch last season. It's one of the keys for him in 2017 because if he can give hitters three different speeds and pitches to worry about, it will make him tough to pick up. Velasquez's fastball averages 95 mph, his changeup 88 and his curveball 80.

Current Nationals are 4 for 21 off Velasquez with just one extra-base hit, a Daniel Murphy double.

2. Good luck to the offense
It might not matter how well Velasquez pitches. His counterpart Friday is Nationals ace and reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.

In case you forgot just how dominant Scherzer has been against the Phillies since joining the Nationals two years ago, here are his game logs against them in chronological order:

• 6 innings, 1 run, 8 strikeouts, Nats win
• 8 innings, 1 run, 9 strikeouts, Nats win
• 8 innings, 1 run, 6 strikeouts, Nats win
• 8 innings, 2 runs, 7 strikeouts, Nats win
• 7 innings, 1 run, 7 strikeouts, Nats win
• 6 innings, 3 runs, 7 strikeouts, Phillies win(!)
• 8 innings, 2 runs, 11 strikeouts, Nats win
• 8 innings, 2 runs, 11 strikeouts, Nats win
• 6 2/3 innings, 0 runs, 8 strikeouts, Nats win

The Nats pushed back Scherzer's season debut a few days because of an offseason stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger. He probably would have been starting on opening day otherwise -- I mean, the guy went 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA last season, had the lowest WHIP (0.97) in baseball and the most strikeouts (284).

Like Cliff Lee once upon a time, Scherzer is around the plate so much that he can be homer-prone. He doesn't like walking hitters and sometimes grooves a first-pitch fastball or will throw something that catches too much plate to avoid falling behind in the count.

Scherzer gave up a National League-leading 31 home runs last season and 27 the year before. Only two active Phillies -- Andres Blanco and Cameron Rupp -- have taken him deep.

Odubel Herrera has had the most success vs. Scherzer of any Phillie, going 7 for 25 with a double, triple, and somehow, five walks.

Blanco is 5 for 11 against him.

3. Who's on first?
Tommy Joseph went 0 for 8 with five strikeouts in the first two games of the season before sitting for Brock Stassi Thursday. In a pinch-hit appearance, Joseph flied out to the opposite field.

Last season, Joseph was 0 for 7 with three K's against Scherzer.

Given the way Daniel Nava started his season Thursday, homering in each of his first two at-bats (see story), it would make sense for Pete Mackanin to start him at first base Friday. It would give the Phillies another left-handed hitter against Scherzer while also keeping Howie Kendrick (5 for 14 off Scherzer) and Michael Saunders (two doubles in nine at-bats) in the lineup.

But it goes both ways. Joseph is a potential piece of the Phillies' future, unlike Nava, Kendrick and Saunders. Sitting him two games in a row this early in the season could damage his confidence.

But remember, Joseph is not an established everyday player yet. He had a solid rookie season with 21 homers but also had a low on-base percentage at .308. And this early in the season, the Phillies should be playing to win, shouldn't they?

4. Washington's year?
The Nationals again have one of the most talented and balanced teams in baseball. They lost catcher Wilson Ramos but gained Matt Wieters, which is essentially a wash. They lost Ben Revere but picked up Adam Eaton, which is a big gain. They also added Adam Lind as a bench bat who can play first base if/when Ryan Zimmerman gets hurt.

With Trea Turner and Eaton, the Nats have tremendous speed and on-base skills atop the lineup for Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. It's going to be difficult to pitch to the middle of that order if one of the first two guys gets on base.

The Nationals' starting rotation is good enough for a division title with Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark. Their bullpen doesn't have a bunch of big names, but closer Blake Treinen and setup man Shawn Kelley have been quietly effective for the better part of two seasons.

The Phillies went 5-14 against the Nationals last season and could do something similar in 2017.

5. This and that
• Herrera had the best opening series of any Phillie, reaching base seven times in 13 plate appearances with two doubles. Since Scherzer moved to the National League, he's put Herrera on base more than any other hitter (12 times). Scherzer walked Herrera four times last season and didn't walk anyone else more than twice.

• Do the Braves owe Ryan Howard's agent a favor or something? What an odd fit.

• If it seemed like Clay Buchholz took forever between pitches Wednesday, that wasn't your imagination. Over the last three seasons, Buchholz and Jeremy Hellickson have been two of the four slowest-paced starting pitchers in baseball. Only David Price and Yu Darvish take more time in between pitches.

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

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USA Today Images

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

CHICAGO -- Paul DeJong hit a tiebreaking two-run double in St. Louis' nine-run eighth inning, and the Cardinals cooled off the Chicago Cubs with an 11-4 victory on Friday.

Chicago carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, looking for its seventh consecutive win. But St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in its highest-scoring inning of the season, taking advantage of a combined six walks by three relievers while improving to 4-4 since the All-Star break.

Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2) was pulled after the first three batters reached. Hector Rondon then walked Jedd Gyorko, tying it at 3, and DeJong followed with a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double. The Cardinals were off and running from there.

Matt Bowman (2-3) got the final out of the seventh for the win.

The Cubs played without third baseman Kris Bryant, who sprained his left little finger on a headfirst slide on Wednesday. X-rays were negative, but Bryant is experiencing soreness and there is some concern about gripping a bat (see full recap).

Andrus' hustle gives Rangers win in 10th inning
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Elvis Andrus homered early, and then snapped a 10th-inning tie with a two-out infield single that gave the struggling Texas Rangers a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

Andrus, who homered in the first inning, hit a sharp grounder off Brad Boxberger (2-1) that forced Evan Longoria to make a diving stop. Pinch runner Delino Shields scored when the third baseman to was unable to complete the throw to first base.

Alex Claudio (2-0) pitched two innings in relief of Yu Darvish to get the win. The left-hander gave up a leadoff single to Steven Souza Jr. in the 10th, but avoided further damage by getting Adeiny Hechavarria to bunt into a double play and Mallex Smith to fly out.

Texas ended a five-game losing streak.

Rays starter Alex Cobb took a three-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but couldn't finish off the Rangers, who erased their deficit with Joey Gallo's double and Shin-Soo Choo's 14th homer within a three-pitch span (see full recap).

Encarnacion powers Indians past former team
CLEVELAND -- Edwin Encarnacion homered and drove in four runs against his former team, and the Cleveland Indians broke open a close game with an eight-run seventh inning to rout the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 on Friday night.

Encarnacion, who played the last six seasons with Toronto before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in January, hit a leadoff home run in the second, broke a 3-all tie in the fifth with a two-run double and added an RBI single in the seventh.

Encarnacion was 3 for 4 with a walk and nearly added to his total later in the seventh, but center fielder Kevin Pillar tracked down his fly ball on the warning track with two runners on.

Abraham Almonte hit a three-run homer and rookie Bradley Zimmer added a two-run single in the seventh as the Indians won for just the second time in eight games (see full recap).

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

BOX SCORE

Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.