Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

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Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

Phillies (1-2) vs. Nationals (1-2)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After dropping the first series of the season to the Boston Red Sox, the Phillies remain home to take on another stacked team in the Washington Nationals.

The Nats entered the season with 6/1 odds (per Bovada) to win the World Series, the shortest in baseball. But Washington didn’t have such a hot series against the Mets, scoring just six runs total in three games.

Of course, the Phillies’ starting pitching isn’t in the same stratosphere as the Mets’, so this series is shaping up to be quite a challenge.

Here are five game notes to get you set for the series opener:

Murderer’s row
The Phillies begin an absolutely brutal 10-game stretch tonight. They’ll face Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer this weekend.

Then they go to New York to face the reigning Rookie of the Year in Jacob deGrom, then Matt Harvey and Jon Niese.

After that, the Phils head to Washington, where they’ll oppose Fister, Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.

The number of aces and No. 2 starters in the NL East is yet another reason the Phillies should be rebuilding. This division is the toughest in baseball when it comes to starting pitching, and even if the Phillies had .500-like talent, it would be hard to avoid a losing season going up against horses like these.

J-Will on the hill
Jerome Williams was a pleasant surprise for the Phils last season, going 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in nine starts after signing in early August.

It was an unlikely career resurgence for a pitcher who had a 9.90 ERA with the Rangers and a 6.04 ERA with the Astros in 2014 before latching onto the back end of the Phils’ rotation.

Can he carry those strong final two months into 2015?

If the spring was any indication, that answer is probably no. Williams went 0-4 in Grapefruit League play with a 7.40 ERA and 1.84 WHIP. His opponents hit .368 with five home runs in 20 2/3 innings.

The Phillies know Williams doesn’t have upside and they know it will be challenging for him to piece together an ERA below 4.50, but if he can provide them six innings and four runs or fewer, that would represent an adequate season debut.

Defensive woes
Both of these infields struggled to field the ball on Thursday night.

Ryan Howard had issues scooping throws in the fifth inning against the Red Sox. One was on a poor throw from Freddy Galvis, the other from Cody Asche after Asche had made an impressive diving stop down the third-base line.

No runs were scored in that inning, but it was a perfect example of why groundballers won’t be as successful with this team as they could be elsewhere. A.J. Burnett didn’t pitch well overall last season, but he was a case in point.

As for the Nats, Ian Desmond committed his third error already this season against the Mets, which led to three unearned runs for Stephen Strasburg. Nationals pitchers could feel some frustration early this season with a middle infield of Desmond and Dan Uggla.

The book on Gio
Gonzalez is a stifling lefty who has always limited hits, but will struggle when his control is off.

Since joining the Nats in 2012, Gonzalez is 42-26 with a 3.25 ERA in 91 starts. He’s faced the Phillies 12 times over that span, going 6-4 with a 3.05 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 22 walks in 73 2/3 innings.

The Phillies’ two veteran lefties, Howard and Chase Utley, have both struggled mightily against Gonzalez. Utley is 3 for 17 and Howard is 0 for 11 with six strikeouts.

You might see Darin Ruf get the start at first base for Howard, especially since a few Phillies outfielders have hit Gonzalez well. Ruf is 6 for 16 off Gonzalez with two homers.

Jeff Francoeur is 5 for 14 with two doubles and a homer against the southpaw. And two of the Phillies’ left-handed hitting outfielders have had success — Grady Sizemore is 7 for 14 with two doubles and a triple, and Ben Revere is 8 for 19.

Sold on the Nats?
I’m not. Washington will almost certainly win the NL East, it has too much talent not to. But beyond that, I don’t see this Nats offense as having enough to advance deep into October, especially with Rendon on the DL and Adam LaRoche on the south side of Chicago.

If Washington is to win it all this season, Bryce Harper will need to carry the Nats on his back. He is a .272 career hitter that gets treated like he’s a perennial MVP candidate. This Nats team doesn’t have a ton of power, so a .290/30-home run season from Harper will be necessary for Washington to beat teams like the Cardinals and Dodgers in the playoffs.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just pitch.
 
Don’t worry about the role.
 
Just pitch.
 
That’s Adam Morgan’s mindset this spring.
 
“I’m just trying to show whoever needs to see it that I can be an asset to this team,” the left-hander said after his spring debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday (see story). “I’m just keeping it simple that way. I’m not trying to go out for that fifth (starting) spot. If the fifth spot opens up, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want to put me in the bullpen, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want me to be the backup catcher, I’ll be the backup catcher.”
 
The Phillies have plenty of candidates for backup catcher.
 
And the top five spots in their starting rotation, barring an unforeseen development, are accounted for.
 
But there is a way for Morgan to make this team.
 
“He’s definitely a bullpen candidate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to have two lefties in what likely will be a seven-man bullpen. It might not work out that way, but that would be Mackanin’s preference.
 
Morgan is one of what appears to be four candidates along with Joely Rodriguez, Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett. Ramos and Burnett are experienced major-league veterans in camp on minor-league contracts. Rodriguez is the only pure lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Morgan, of course, is on the 40-man roster, but he’s mainly been a starter in his career.

There’s a long way to go in spring training and it would not be surprising to see general manager Matt Klentak add to the list of lefty relief candidates with some type of pickup before the end of camp.
 
But for now, it’s just these four.
 
Morgan, who turns 27 on Monday, started and pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday and will likely continue to have his innings stretched out throughout the Grapefruit League season, just in case he’s needed as a starter.

Ramos and Rodriguez both pitched an inning Saturday. Ramos allowed a hit and a run. Rodriguez had a clean inning. Burnett was tagged for two hits and two runs on Friday.
 
Morgan made 21 starts for the Phillies last season. He also made two relief appearances and finished the season with a 6.04 ERA. He was sent to Triple A in July and returned in mid-August. He made nine starts after returning and pitched at least six innings and gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of them.
 
During his time in Triple A, Morgan started throwing a two-seam fastball or sinker. He’s continued to throw it this spring and believes it will help him.
 
“I learned to trust the two-seamer last year and that’s what I hope to keep moving forward with,” he said.
 
Will it take him to the Phillies’ bullpen?
 
He hopes so. He got a taste of relieving last season and liked it.
 
“Oh, yeah, I loved it,” he said. “Every time the phone rang down there, I was on high alert. It was awesome. It’s a rush.
 
“But wherever I land, I land. I’d be willing to play anywhere on this team.”

Phillies 6, Yankees 5: Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, Brock Stassi shine with bats

Phillies 6, Yankees 5: Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, Brock Stassi shine with bats

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Pete Mackanin assembled what will probably end up being his opening day lineup for Saturday’s spring home opener against the Yankees.
 
He liked what he saw.
 
Especially from cleanup man Maikel Franco.
 
Franco’s big challenge in becoming a more complete player is to improve his selectivity at the plate. The 24-year-old third baseman looked pretty good in that area in three at-bats.
 
Franco fell behind 0-2 in his first at-bat then battled back to a full count before popping out in the second inning.
 
He smacked a homer to left on a 2-2 slider in the fourth and then in the sixth, he stroked a first-pitch gapper to left-center that went for an inside-the-park homer. The ball got stuck under the padding on the outfield wall and the umpire did not rule it a ground-rule double.
 
“Hey, you see my speed?” the not-so-fleet-footed Franco said with a laugh after coming out of the game. “It’s like Cesar’s (Hernandez) speed.”
 
Mackanin liked the totality of Franco’s at-bats, not just the results.
 
“He had two long, deep-count at-bats,” Mackanin said. “He worked the count deep and that was good to see.”
 
There are many miles to go before opening day, and Franco still has many miles to cover before he’s the complete player he wants to be and the selective hitter the front office wants to build around.
 
Franco vowed to keep working on it under new hitting coach Matt Stairs.
 
“He told me my focus should be when I stay to the middle of the field, I'll have a lot of success,” Franco said. “I am trying to work on it and put focus on it. I talked to (Howie) Kendrick about hitting and he's helped me. I'm going to stay on it every single day. I'm trying to do my job, trying to do the best I can.
 
“When I stay in the middle, when I try to hit the ball up the middle, something is going to happen. That's what I want to do, what I want to keep doing.”
 
Franco hit .255 with 25 homers and 88 RBIs last season, but his on-base percentage was just .306.
 
He was asked whether he had any personal goals for the season.
 
“The first thing is to try to be healthy,” he said. “I just want to play in 162 games. Other than that, I'll just do everything I can do.
 
“Every single day I want to do my best and not try to force the situation. I think I can do better than last year. This year should be very good and much better than last year.”
 
The game 
The Phillies won it, 6-5, on a walk-off RBI single by Brock Stassi in the bottom of the ninth inning. The hit scored Rhys Hoskins, who had doubled. Hoskins drove a homer to deep center earlier in the game.
 
Hoskins, who turns 24 in March, has 55 homers and 206 RBIs the last two seasons. He will move to Triple A this season and play first base.

Stassi is a candidate to win a job on the bench (see story). He hasn’t hurt himself in the first two games. He homered Friday and had the game-winning hit Saturday.
 
“I’m feeling pretty good early on,” he said. “Gotta keep it going.”
 
Pitching in
Adam Morgan pitched two scoreless innings. Prospect Ricardo Pinto pitched a scoreless inning. It’s not out of the question that he transition to the bullpen at some point this season.
 
Mark Appel showed his big stuff with three strikeouts in two innings of work, but his control problems also surfaced as he threw a wild pitch that resulted in two runs.
 
Up next
Probable opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson makes his spring debut Sunday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin.
 
Here is the Phillies’ posted lineup for that game:
 
1. Cameron Perkins CF
2. J.P. Crawford SS
3. Daniel Nava LF
4. Cameron Rupp DH 
5. Andres Blanco 2B
6. Dylan Cozens RF
7. Ryan Hanigan C
8. Brock Stassi 1B
9. Taylor Featherston 3B
 
Right-hander Joe Biagini will start for Toronto.
 
Jerad Eickhoff will start for the Phillies against Tampa Bay on Monday. Clay Buchholz will start against Baltimore on Tuesday. Both of those games are in Clearwater.