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.

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

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A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

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The return on the Phillies' $13.5 million investment in Clay Buchholz was about as poor as it gets, but if it keeps leading to starts like Sunday's out of rotation replacement Zach Eflin, nobody inside or outside the organization will complain.

Eflin was in cruise control Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, limiting the Braves to just one run on three hits over seven innings and keeping the Phillies in the game before their eighth-inning fireworks in their 5-2 win (see Instant Replay).

Eflin struck out only three batters but generated a lot of weak contact. There were six groundouts to first base and just as many soft pop-ups to the shallow outfield.

Whereas Buchholz's two outings with the Phillies resulted in 10 runs and 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings, Eflin's first two starts have yielded just three runs and nine baserunners in 12 innings.

"Just the other day we were talking about depth in the pitching rotation at Triple A and here is good evidence of what we have down there," a jovial Pete Mackanin said. "Eflin comes out of Triple A and pitches outstanding. That's a bonus for us.

"When he's got that bowling-ball sinker working, it's hard for a hitter not to worry about the inside part of the plate, which opens up the outer half."

Eflin worked quickly and kept the game moving. Eight of his 21 outs required two pitches or less.

"I felt really good today, I did a good job of getting ahead in the count and getting early contact, trusting my sinker and I stuck with that the whole game," Eflin said.

The lone run Eflin allowed was a seventh-inning solo home run by Matt Kemp, who broke his bat on a jam-job to left field his previous time up. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half with three one-out singles, then exploded in the eighth inning with back-to-back-to-back homers by Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera. 

Just like that, the Phillies completed their first series sweep of the young season, sending the Braves packing with a 6-12 record. The Phils, back to .500 at 9-9, are off Monday before beginning a three-game series vs. Miami.

The Phillies were also 9-9 last season but got there in a much different way, winning a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. The offense has been better this April and the starting pitching is coming around.

Last year when the Phillies were 9-9, they had been outscored by 23 runs. This year, they've outscored their opponents by seven.

"It does feel different," Mackanin said. "Who would have thought Cesar would hit four home runs the whole year? But there are a lot of good things going on. We'll just go from here and see what happens. Again, the big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up."

Some good things are happening at Triple A, where three pitchers have already earned call-ups and another, Nick Pivetta, is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA through three starts. He's struck out 24 while walking two. 

It's another illustration of how many of their recent trades the Phillies have won. 

Eflin was acquired in December 2014 for one season of a 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins. 

Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals two summers ago when the Phillies had no leverage with Jonathan Papelbon but found a meaningful return anyway. 

And Joely Rodriguez, who picked up his first major-league win Sunday, was the piece the Phillies got back from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo.

"Joely Rodriguez has really stepped up and done a great job for us," Mackanin said. "We originally considered him more of a long guy, but he is starting to prove to me that he can get big outs late in the game against certain hitters and he got a couple of big outs (today)."