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.