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.

Best of MLB: Masahiro Tanaka throws shutout; Yankees top Red Sox, 3-0

Best of MLB: Masahiro Tanaka throws shutout; Yankees top Red Sox, 3-0

BOSTON -- Masahiro Tanaka pitched a three-hitter to outduel Chris Sale and earn his first shutout since 2014, and the New York Yankees beat Boston 3-0 on Thursday night for their fifth straight victory over the rival Red Sox.

Tanaka (3-1) struck out three and threw only 97 pitches for his fifth career complete game and his 10th win in 11 decisions dating to last season. Aaron Hicks had two hits and scored twice, and Matt Holliday had two hits and two RBIs.

Tanaka retired the last 14 batters he faced and only allowed one runner to reach second base.

Sale (1-2) allowed three runs -- two earned -- and eight hits in eight innings, striking out 10 and walking none. He joined Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Jon Lester as Red Sox pitchers with 10 or more strikeouts in four straight starts (see full recap).

Urias makes solid 2017 debut as Dodgers beat Giants in 10
SAN FRANCISCO -- Run-scoring singles by Andrew Toles and Justin Turner in the 10th inning led the Dodgers to a 5-1 victory Thursday against the San Francisco Giants after Los Angeles pitcher Julio Urias made a solid start in his 2017 debut.

The Dodgers, who had lost to the Giants in 10 innings the night before, loaded the bases with no outs in the 10th on two walks and an infield hit. Toles followed with a tie-breaking single, Kike Hernandez had a sacrifice fly and Turner extended his hitting streak to 13 games with an RBI single. Chris Taylor drove in the fifth run with a bases-loaded walk.

Kenley Jansen (1-0) got the win, striking out the side in the ninth inning, as the Dodgers managed a split of the four-game series. The loser was Cory Gearrin (0-1), who walked the only batter he faced leading off the 10th inning.

Urias allowed one run in 5 2-3 innings after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City before the game (see full recap).

Harper homers in 11-run 7th, Turner, Nats rout Rockies
DENVER -- Bryce Harper hit a three-run homer as part of an 11-run seventh inning, Trea Turner had another big game at Coors Field and the Washington Nationals routed the Colorado Rockies 16-5 on Thursday.

Turner proved to be a pitcher's nightmare throughout the four-game series. He hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and added a double and two singles in the finale -- in all, he had nine extra-base hits, scored 10 runs and had 11 RBIs.

Washington finished 9-1 on its road trip, taking three of the last four at Colorado. What's more, the Nationals scored 11 or more runs in three straight games for the first time since July 1986 at Atlanta, when the team was the Montreal Expos.

Leading 4-2, the Nationals broke the game open in the seventh by sending 15 batters to the plate and pounding out eight hits, including Harper's eighth homer.

Gio Gonzalez (3-0) pitched in the seventh and also drove in two runs.

Rockies rookie Antonio Senzatela (3-1) took the loss (see full recap).

Lindor's 2-run blast in 7th leads Indians past Astros
CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor hit a long two-run homer in the seventh inning to lift the Cleveland Indians over the Houston Astros 4-3 Thursday night.

Lindor's 456-foot homer off Chris Devenski (1-1) landed in the visitors bullpen about 50 feet beyond the center field wall.

Corey Kluber (3-1) struck out 10 and allowed three runs in seven innings as the defending AL champs took two of three from the AL West leaders.

Edwin Encarnacion and Abraham Almonte also homered for Cleveland, which has won seven of nine.

Marwin Gonzalez homered, and Evan Gattis and Alex Bregman each had an RBI single for the Astros, who have the second-best record in the AL (see full recap).

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

BOX SCORE

With Kendrick Lamar's "Duckworth" blaring through the clubhouse speakers, a spirited Phillies team fresh off a six-game winning streak packed its bags for a daunting road trip.

The Phils, 11-9 after Thursday's 3-2 win over the Marlins (see Instant Replay), begin a three-game series at Dodger Stadium Friday night before heading to Wrigley Field for four games with the reigning champion Cubs. 

After that, they play six of their next eight games against the Nationals, who have the best record in baseball and the top three RBI leaders in the majors so far this season.

On the one hand, you want to face these teams when you're hot. On the other hand, we saw what happened late last May when the Phils took a 25-19 record into a nine-game run against the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals that effectively ended their season.

"What a great homestand to leave on," manager Pete Mackanin said. "That was fun. We're coming together as a team."

The Phillies are winning in many different ways right now. They're hitting homers, getting solid starting pitching and effective bullpen work. Three of these six straight wins have been in one-run games.

On Thursday, Jeremy Hellickson handled the free-swinging Marlins yet again. He had a 2.01 ERA against them in six starts last season and carried that success into this start, allowing one run on seven hits with no walks over six innings.

Hellickson has walked just three Marlins in 46 1/3 innings the last two seasons.

"Hellickson, this guy, sometimes I watch him pitch and when he's doing it right, it looks like he's just playing catch with the catcher," Mackanin said.

It's interesting that Hellickson has had this much success early without striking anyone out.

"I've never struck that many guys out," said Hellickson, who did admit he's a little surprised his numbers have been so stellar without the benefit of a few more K's. He's struck out just 11 of the 115 batters he's faced in 2017.

But Hellickson's 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.80 WHIP through five starts. His pace is slow, but his outs are quick.

The key spot for Hellickson came in the fourth when Martin Prado and Christian Yelich began the inning with singles. Runners were on the corners with nobody out and Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto coming up.

But Hellickson got his only strikeout of the afternoon in that spot, whiffing Stanton, who continues to have relatively quiet games against the Phillies. Ozuna popped out and Realmuto lined out to end the threat.

Hellickson retired all three of them on changeups, his go-to pitch that has legitimately become one of the best pitches in baseball.

Hellickson entered Thursday's start with the fourth-lowest opponents' batting average (.155) on his changeup of any major-league starter since last season. He got seven more outs with that pitch against the Marlins.

You don't often see — in fact, you rarely ever see — a right-handed pitcher turn to his changeup against righties, especially with men in scoring position. Typically, a right-handed changeup is used as an out-pitch against lefties because it fades down and away from them. 

But Hellickson's is so good that he's OK throwing it to any hitter in any count.

"Bob McClure and I had that conversation in the early part of last season," Mackanin said. "I didn't understand it. I told Mac, 'I'm not crazy about right-on-right changeups.' He said, 'Pete, it's such a good changeup that he gets people out with it.' I said OK, I'll defer to you on this one. 

"And as the season went along, he was right. If you've got that good of an arm action on your changeup that deceives the hitters and the movement, you can get anybody out with it."

Offense for the Phillies wasn't plentiful but it was enough. They scored a run on Dee Gordon's first-inning error, a second after Freddy Galvis' one-out triple in the third, and the deciding run came on Brock Stassi's RBI triple in the sixth.

That was all they needed because of another strong effort by Hellickson and the relievers behind him.

Hector Neris picked up his third save with a 1-2-3, seven-pitch ninth inning. Joaquin Benoit had a perfect eighth inning with two strikeouts. 

But sidewinding Pat Neshek picked up the biggest outs with men on base in the seventh inning of a one-run game. The inning ended with a weak swing by Stanton, who punched out with two men on.

It came just a couple weeks after Neshek made Yoenis Cespedes look silly after numerous other Phillies pitchers were victimized by the Cuban slugger.

"For the most part," Neshek said when asked if his deceptive delivery plays better against big, right-handed power hitters. "There's some guys like Adrian Beltre that just destroyed me. But yeah, I like facing big righty guys. That's kind of what I've done all my career."

"It's very important," Mackanin said of Neshek's deceptiveness. "The biggest thing about that is hitters don't see that very often. They don't see it all the time. If they saw it all the time, it would be less imposing. But when you have to change your eyesight down to knee- or ankle-level, it's very disruptive. The deception is what gets you out.

"That was huge. You know what Stanton's capable of doing and Neshek just did a fine job on him. For whatever reason, we seem to make a lot of quality pitches against that guy."

Indeed they do. Now they hope to make some quality pitches against Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy over the next two weeks. 

If they don't, all the positivity of this six-game winning streak will be but a distant memory by mid-May.

"I'm obviously pleased with the performance of the players," Mackanin said. "We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year."