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.

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph out, Rhys Hoskins back to 1B in opener vs. Nationals

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CSN

Tonight's Lineup: Tommy Joseph out, Rhys Hoskins back to 1B in opener vs. Nationals

The Phillies need just one more win to avoid losing 100 games this season. They'll hope to get it Monday night when they open their series against the Nationals.

Pete Mackanin has made several adjustments to the lineup that beat Atlanta on Sunday, 2-0, behind a strong start from Nick Pivetta (see observations).

Tommy Joseph is out, which means that Rhys Hoskins returns to first base. Hoskins is going through a rough stretch over the last few days, as he has only two hits in his last 17 at-bats.

Despite going 2 for 3 Sunday, Jorge Alfaro is replaced by Andrew Knapp, who plays for the first time since last Wednesday. Mackanin seems to be trying to give all three of his catchers chances to play over the final weeks of the season.

Aaron Altherr shifts down from second to fifth in the lineup. Altherr is hitting .289 vs. righties this season, compared to .236 against lefties. The Phillies face a righty tonight in Washington's A.J. Cole. In two appearances against the Phillies this year, Cole has allowed only one run in eight innings.

Aaron Nola kicks off the Phillies' final homestand on the mound. He has been stellar this year at Citizens Bank Park, where he is 9-4 with a 2.98 ERA. Nola has started against the Nationals three times in 2017, sporting a 1-0 record and 3.31 ERA in those outings. 

The Phillies' lineup can be found below: 

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Maikel Franco, 3B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Aaron Nola, SP

And the Nationals' lineup:

Nationals
1. Trea Turner, SS
2. Wilmer Difo, 3B
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
4. Adam Lind, LF
5. Jayson Werth, RF
6. Michael Taylor, CF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Adrian Sanchez, 2B
9. A.J. Cole, P

After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

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AP Images

After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

His team had lost the previous two nights to the Atlanta Braves. Now, it was trying to hold a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning and salvage at least one game in the series.

So Pete Mackanin went to arguably his most dependable reliever.

Back in the final days of spring training, Adam Morgan was nearly cut from the Phillies. The team needed 40-man roster space and he was on the short list of considerations for the waiver wire. Morgan survived, squeaked onto the opening day roster as a mop-up man, then, two weeks into the season, was called into the manager's office and sent to Triple A Lehigh Valley for the fifth time in two seasons.

That meeting in Mackanin's office shook Morgan. He said little. He walked out, sat in front of the locker he'd soon have to vacate and began a three-day reflection period in which he seriously considered retiring from the game at age 27 and moving on to pursue his second career choice of being a firefighter in the Atlanta area, where he was raised.

Morgan was back in Atlanta on Sunday, a different kind of fireman.

He was the guy that Mackanin called upon to hold off the Braves in the eighth inning and get the ball to Hector Neris. Neris bobbed and weaved his way to recording his 18th consecutive save since June 28. Before that, Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning to lower his ERA to 0.75 since August 2. In that span, he has pitched 24 innings in 18 games. He has given up just 14 hits and two runs while walking four and striking out 28.

Not too shabby.

"Morgan continued to pitch well, did a great job," Mackanin said after the 2-0 win. "And Neris is Neris. He makes you nervous but gets the job done."

Several months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Mackanin calling on Morgan is such a tight situation. It also would have been difficult to imagine Morgan popping fastballs at 96.3 miles per hour, as he did Sunday, and setting up hitters with a tight, late-breaking slider. The combination has enhanced his changeup.

Morgan, a lefty, was a top starting pitching prospect with the Phillies, often compared to a young Cliff Lee, until a shoulder injury set him back in 2013 and 2014. He made it back from surgery in 2015, but his fastball never returned to form. He was moved to the bullpen last year and tried to reinvent himself as a finesse pitcher. The results were spotty. When he was sent to the minors after just two appearances back in April of this season, he was at an emotional crossroads. He told team officials that he was going to need all three days as allowed by baseball's labor agreement to report to Triple A.

"And maybe more," he said.

Morgan and his wife, Rachel, have spent the season living in hotels between Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. On April 11, the night he was sent to the minors, he returned to his Philadelphia hotel and continued the reflection that started in front of his locker.

"I thought long and hard about what I was going to do, if I wanted to do the whole shuttle back and forth to Lehigh, or if I wanted to even play anymore," he said. "I'm such a simple guy that it's the little things that make me happy. Being with my family makes me happy, cutting the grass makes me happy. I'd think to myself, 'Why am I showing up to the field and I'm not happy?"

Morgan thought about returning to school and finishing the criminal justice degree he'd begun at the University of Alabama. And he thought about pursuing a lifelong calling.

"I'd always wanted to be a firefighter," he said. "They're bad dudes. They're awesome. I've always wanted to do it. I've always liked the brotherhood those guys have. It's a little like baseball, the camaraderie, the clubhouse. I thought maybe it was time."

Morgan is a Southern gentleman, an earnest, good-hearted man of faith. As he continued to contemplate his future, he prayed, read the Bible and talked with his wife, his buddies and his mom and dad back home in suburban Atlanta.

He decided to report to Lehigh Valley.

"My dad always taught me once you start something, finish it, don't quit," Morgan said. "So I decided I was going to finish the year regardless then re-evaluate. It was not right to quit in the middle of the year."

Morgan made it back to the majors in May and was soon sent back to Triple A. He could handle it. He was at peace. When the Phillies needed pitching in early June, he returned to the majors. He's been there ever since. And with each successful appearance, he's earned the trust of his manager. The guy who was almost cut in spring training is now a go-to guy for Mackanin.

"I think what we're seeing is the real deal," Mackanin said. "It's there. We’ve been counting on him to do the job and he's done it."

In the seasons immediately after surgery, Morgan's fastball hovered around 90 mph. He has hit 97 often over the last couple of months. Morgan believes the jump in velocity is a result of his becoming more accustomed to a reliever's routine. It allows him to do more long-tossing during workouts and that has improved his arm strength. He has also become more confident. That has resulted in him letting the ball go with more conviction instead of choking it as a pitcher afraid of making a mistake would. Hitters must be ready for that extra velocity or get beaten by it, so it has made the rest of Morgan's pitches better.

An improved slider has also played a huge role in Morgan's turnaround. He knew he needed to sharpen the pitch. He and pitching coach Bob McClure talked about a number of different grips and Morgan began to experiment. Finally, as he played catch in the outfield one day with fellow pitcher Luis Garcia, another reliever who has shown signs of finally putting it together, Morgan found a grip that worked.

"Louie was like, 'Wow,' " Morgan said.

Morgan continued to work on the new slider. It's tighter and breaks later than his old one. It has become a weapon.

"His fastball is better and he's throwing an invisible slider," Mackanin said.

There has been an intangible quality to Morgan's improvement, as well. Some of it is as simple as what McClure says: It often takes a pitcher two or three years before he truly believes he can succeed in the majors, two or three years to relax and let his natural abilities shine. It's part of the mental game of baseball and Morgan has clearly made strides there.

"Things started to turn when I started to enjoy the game," he said. "I stopped putting pressure on myself because I knew this could be my last year. I was like, 'If this is it, I'm going to enjoy it.' Even in Triple A. We had a good group of guys. I was going to cheer for them and let the chips fall where they may.

"I stopped putting my worth on my stat sheet. That's where I lost sight of how much I enjoyed the game. As a reliever, one bad outing can mess up your stats so I stopped looking at it.

"I focused on my strengths instead of the hitter's weakness. I think I was tired of everybody telling me what my strengths were, like telling me how to pitch to be successful. People were trying to help me, but I think I just got exhausted with being a people pleaser and not taking care of myself and doing what I see as the right thing. I never lost confidence in my fastball even after surgery when it was 88 or 90. I feel like I'm pitching to my strengths. I don’t have to throw a curveball to this guy because he's a crappy curveball hitter. I can get him out different ways."

Morgan has gone from a waiver consideration to "for me, a definite," as far as being in the Phillies' bullpen plans for next season, Mackanin said.

But Morgan is taking nothing for granted.

"I don't think this is a fluke," he said. "But I know I have to keep showing it. You have to prove it every day up here. I don't think you can ever get comfortable in the big leagues. You always have to have that edge.

"Even though the season is coming to a close, I don’t want it to end. I have to keep doing my routine, my shoulder work, my long-toss. I'm still working, trying to get better."

Funny how things work out. In April, Adam Morgan was thinking about the end. Along the way, he found a new beginning.

"Wow," he said, exhaling. "It's just emotional even thinking about quitting."