Phillies-Nationals: What you need to know

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Phillies-Nationals: What you need to know

Phillies (13-15) at Washington Nationals (18-9)8:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies entered this weekends series with the Washington Nationals hoping to move above .500 for the first time since starting the season 1-0, and in the process pick up at least one game on the team that has spent the majority of 2012 atop the NL East.

Instead, the Phils dropped consecutive games at Nationals Park to fall to two games under .500, 5 behind Washington and into last place in the division.

The Phillies can at least salvage a frustrating series Sunday night when Cole Hamels gives them their one and only starting pitching advantage of the three-game set.

Starting Pitchers
Hamels, 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA, is off to another great start, and a team truly knows it has an ace when it can count on him to deliver a better-than-quality start when he doesnt have his best stuff working.

Hamels last start in Atlanta wasnt spectacular, but he held the Braves to two runs over six innings, struck out six and induced as many groundballs as flyballs.

Hamels has a .248 opponents batting average and a .661 OPS against, so he is essentially making all hitters look like Orioles utility infielder Robert Andino. With six strikeouts Sunday night, Hamels will re-take the NL lead on Gio Gonzalez.

This will be Hamels fourth consecutive road start. He allowed five runs in 20 innings over the last three and the Phillies won each game.

Going for the Nationals is 25-year-old righthander Jordan Zimmermann, who is 1-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 0.84 WHIP. Zimmermann allowed one run in each of his first four starts before getting tagged for four (three earned) Tuesday vs. Arizona.

Last season was Zimmermanns first full year in the bigs, and he went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA and just 31 walks against 124 strikeouts. The Nats had him on a strict innings count of 160.

Zimmermann uses a 93-95 mile per hour fastball, a mid-80s slider, a high-70s curveball and, very rarely, a mid-80s changeup. The slider was far and away his best pitch in 2011.

Head-to-head
The Phillies are 79-51 (.608) against the Nationals since they moved to Washington in 2005, but have lost seven in a row in the series and 11 of 13. This is the fifth straight series with the Nats that the Phils havent won.

Hamels is 10-4 with a 2.71 ERA in 20 starts against Washington. Hes struck out 136 and walked 36 in 129 innings. Hes also 2-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four starts at Nationals Park.

Current Nats are batting .227 off Hamels, but do have nine home runs, seven doubles and a slugging percentage of .448. As weve written all weekend, though, those numbers are aided by Ryan Zimmerman, who is currently on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.

Zimmermann has not been effective in three starts against the Phillies. He is 0-2 with a 6.60 ERA and a .328 opponents batting average. Shane Victorino is 3 for 8 off Zimmermann with two doubles and Carlos Ruiz is 3 for 7 with a homer.

Previous games
The Nationals won the first game of the series, 4-3, in 11 innings Friday night. The Phils held leads of 2-0 and 3-1, but blown calls by a three-man umpiring crew and a leaky bullpen gave away the advantage.

The Phillies struck first Saturday but the Nats got to Vance Worley an inning later and eventually won easily, 7-1, as the often wild Gonzalez threw strike after strike.

Whos hot
Ruiz, who even found a way to contribute on a bad offensive day for the Phils. He drove in the only run Saturday with a shallow sacrifice fly. He has hit in seven of eight games, and four of those were multi-hit games. Ruiz is batting .325.352.588 on the season. Just gaudy numbers, especially for a catcher.

Laynce Nix figures to start at first base. He went 0 for 2 in his last start but in the three before that was 5 for 9 with a homer, two doubles and four RBI.
Whos not
Ty Wigginton is 0 for his last 9 with six strikeouts.
Sound off
With the Phils at risk of moving 6 games back of the Nationals with a loss, is this an early-season must-win?

E-mail Corey Seidman at cseidman@comcastsportsnet.com

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."