Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

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Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

After a week that felt like an early All-Star break, the Phillies (13-13) are back on the field Friday night to open a three-game home series against the Washington Nationals (16-12).

The Phils were off Monday, delayed by rain on Tuesday, rained out on Wednesday and off Thursday. It’s been an uneventful week that has derailed some of their momentum from the West Coast road trip, where they won six of their final eight games.

The benefit of all the down time, though, is the Phils' ability to set up the rotation the way they want. They’ll start Cliff Lee on Friday, A.J. Burnett on Saturday and Cole Hamels on Sunday, which is probably the way it would go in a playoff series. Division games are important whether it's May or September, and if maximizing the starting pitching production allows the Phils to win this series, it could be very important in a few months.

1. Lee’s sixth start
Lee (3-2, 3.29) allowed eight runs in the Phillies' season opener in Texas, but because that game was March 31, his ERA for the month of April was 1.75.

It’s a new month now and Lee will begin it by taking on the Nationals, against whom he’s 6-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 11 starts. Lee’s allowed 78 hits and struck out 78 in 78 1/3 innings against Washington and has surrendered an uncharacteristically high 11 home runs. He’s been taken deep three times by Danny Espinosa, who is a .368 career hitter against him.

Lee has limited the walks this year, as he always does. He enters Friday night with 40 strikeouts and just four bases on balls. But he’s given up 52 hits and righties are batting .333 off him in 129 at-bats.

2. Watered-down Nats
Bryce Harper is out until July after undergoing thumb surgery, and the oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman isn’t close to returning from a thumb injury of his own. That leaves the Nats without two of their top three hitters.

The Nats have some outfield depth to replace Harper with Nate McLouth and former Phillie Kevin Frandsen, who has played some left field. Expect to see the right-handed Frandsen in the lineup Friday.

Zimmerman’s absence has shifted Anthony Rendon from second base to third base and provided Espinosa the opportunity to reclaim a starting job.

Both have hit well. Rendon leads the Nats with a .316 batting average and 10 doubles and is tied for the team lead with four home runs. Espinosa has hit .288 with an .828 OPS.

3. Dealing with Strasburg
The Phillies draw Stephen Strasburg (2-2, 4.24) for the first game of the series.

Strasburg allowed 10 runs (seven earned) in 10 1/3 innings in his first two starts, but in three of his last four outings he’s gone at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer.

Strasburg is second in baseball with 53 strikeouts, trailing only Jose Fernandez of the Marlins, who has 55. Between those two, Matt Harvey, Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Wheeler, Nate Eovaldi and Mets super-prospect Noah Syndergaard, the Phils will have their hands full for a very long time against young, team-controlled starting pitching.

Strasburg has owned the Phillies in six starts. His 2-1 record and 2.65 ERA are decent but don’t tell the whole story. The Phillies have hit .186 against him with five walks and 42 strikeouts. As MLB veteran-turned-MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa put it Wednesday night, “When you face Strasburg, you drive to the stadium knowing you’ll punch out at least once and probably twice.”

Strasburg’s velocity has never been what it was his rookie season, when it averaged 97.3 mph. In fact, it’s down this season from his 95.7 mph career average to 94.2. But it’s still an elite heater made better by his nasty curveball and 88 mph changeup.

Ben Revere and Tony Gwynn, Jr. are each 2 for 3 off Strasburg, and Carlos Ruiz is 3 for 8 with a homer and a double. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, however, are a combined 3 for 27 (.111) with eight strikeouts. Oddly enough, Ryan Howard has never struck out against Strasburg.

4. Brown beyond due
It was May 2013 when Domonic Brown finally broke out. He hit .303 with 12 home runs last May, which was really the only month of his career he’s looked like the prospect he was hyped up to be.

Brown has done very little so far this season. He enters the Nats series hitting .253 with a .314 on-base percentage and .316 slugging percentage. He has just four extra-base hits on the season -- a homer and three doubles.

With Marlon Byrd striking out more than ever and the Phils getting next to nothing from third base, Brown needs to be the player who produces for the bottom of the Phillies' order.

5. Stay away from Werth
In 28 career at-bats against Lee, Jayson Werth has hit .357 with a double, a triple, two homers and a 1.023 OPS.

Against the Phillies last year at Citizens Bank Park, Werth hit .342/.409/.579 with three homers and eight RBIs in 10 games.

In his last eight games overall this season, Werth has hit .371 with three doubles and a homer.

In other words, let anybody else beat you Friday night.

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozen baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot of attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coghlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could affect Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95 (mph), it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game-calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good, long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”

Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.