By Matt Szczypiorski, Sports Talk Philly Contributing Writer
The Phillies travel to the nation’s capital Tuesday night to take on the defending World Series champions for the first time this season.
Both teams have severely underwhelmed thus far, as they both sit at the bottom of the NL East standings with records under .500.
The Phillies come into this series with the same issue they’ve had all season: the bullpen. Before Sunday night’s victory by the narrowest of margins, the Phils had lost five consecutive games. In three of those five games, the Phils held a late lead that would be ultimately blown by numerous characters in the bullpen.
Even the new guy the Phillies acquired, closer Brandon Workman, promptly blew a save against Atlanta in his debut as a Phil. Had it not been for a phenomenal relay by the unlikely trio of Roman Quinn, Didi Gregorius, and Andrew Knapp on Sunday night, Workman would have blown the lead in that game too. Not great!
Meanwhile, the Nationals come into this series off of a rare five game series against Miami, where they lost three of five. The Nationals have underperformed, largely due to their pitching as well. While they have one of the better offenses in the league, the pitching ranks toward the bottom. As a team, they have even had some of the same issues the Phillies have had on the mound and at the plate.
Essentially, this series is going to come down to which team’s pitching staff implodes first.
Phillies Lineup vs. Nationals Pitching
The Phillies lineup has had the same trend over the past week. They’ve been scoring a lot of runs early against whatever starting pitcher they face that day, and then go fairly dormant once the other team’s bullpen comes into the game.
That fact coincided with the Phillies bullpen insisting on giving up runs in boatloads is why they lost five straight games last week. They’ll need to turn around that trend against a team they struggled against last season.
The Phillies offense remains in the top seven in the majors in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. Yet, they find themselves in the middle of the pack in terms of runs scored.
Why, you ask? They find themselves ranked 27th in baseball when it comes to runners left on base per game, as they leave almost four runners stranded in scoring position per game. If the Phils were able to hit just a little bit better when they had ducks on the pond, the offense as a whole would be one of the best in the league.
Instead, their inconsistencies at the plate have been one of the reasons, though not the main reason, that their record is what it is at this point in the season.
The Phillies will look to turn that around while facing the strength of the Nationals team: the starting rotation. The Nats are projected to start Erick Fedde (2.55 ERA), Patrick Corbin (3.99 ERA), and Max Scherzer (4.31 ERA).
Fedde is the definition of a contact pitcher, as he has just five strikeouts in five games. However, his 2.55 ERA proves how effective he has been so far.
Patrick Corbin has been up to par with his career averages so far, you know what to expect from him. He’s a guy with a lot of movement on his off-speed pitches and he has an effective fastball. He keeps hitters off balance with his deep pitch mix.
Max Scherzer has begun to show his age this season. The 36-year-old has his highest ERA since 2011, and it would be the first time since 2014 that his ERA would be over three. The Phillies should know what to expect from him, he’s looking to punch guys out with his electric fastball and wicked slider. He remains in the top ten in baseball with 44 strikeouts.
Look for Bryce Harper to have a big series against his former team. He played fairly well against the Nats last season, as he hit three homers and provided a memorable first trip back to D.C. Also, Harper has been one of the best hitters in the league to this point in the season and is considered a legitimate MVP candidate. He remains first in the National League in OPS.
We were saying Boo-ryce... pic.twitter.com/Gvo08aZykq— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) April 3, 2019
Nationals Lineup vs. Phillies Pitching
The Nationals offense finds themselves in a similar situation to the Phillies offense. They currently rank third in the majors in team batting average, but are just 18th in runs scored.
Again, much like the Phillies, this is because they fail to bring runners across the plate when they’re in scoring position. While not as bad as the Phillies, the Nationals rank 21st in baseball in terms of runners left in scoring position.
When it comes to the Washington Nationals, there is one guy in the lineup that is going to get more attention than anyone else, and rightfully so. 21-year-old Juan Soto is following up his tremendous postseason success and world series title last season with a phenomenal start to this season.
Since coming off of the Covid IL, Soto is hitting .400 with seven dingers and 17 RBI’s, leading the Nats in all three of those categories. You could easily make the case that Soto is the best all-around hitter in baseball right now.
Rookie Luis Garcia, the first player born in the 2000’s to hit a home run in major league history, is an interesting piece to this lineup that Phillies fans may not be familiar with yet. Garcia has 11 hits in 33 at-bats to go along with a respectable .808 OPS. Whether he’ll be able to keep this up remains to be seen, but he has had a great start to his career so far.
The Phillies will trot out Jake Arrieta (4.95 ERA), Aaron Nola (3.10 ERA), and Spencer Howard (6.17 ERA) over the next three games. All three are coming off of starts that resulted in Phillies losses.
Arrieta surrendered four runs and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning and got tagged with the loss against Boston. Nola got roughed up for four earned runs in just 2.2 innings of work in his worst performance this season against Atlanta.
As for Howard, he actually had his best start as a pro against the Blue Jays last Thursday. He gave up only one run and struck out five batters across 3.2 innings. The big thing I’d like to see him work on in his next start would be to keep his pitch count down and to continue to be more aggressive against hitters. The Nats are a far superior offensive team compared to Toronto, so I’m interested to see how he competes.
Now, time for the obligatory rant about the bullpen.
The Phillies bullpen has an 8.33 ERA, which is not only the worst in baseball right now, but would be the worst in baseball history. The MLB has been around since 1869, for 151 years, and not one bullpen has been worse than the one the Phillies have fielded night in and night out.
While it absolutely blows my mind that a team in 2020 could have a component of their team be this bad, it stings even more when you think about how this team was supposed to be “built” to compete this year. It’s hard to wrap your head around.
The Phillies did upgrade, however, by acquiring Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from Boston last week. While Workman caught the disease that is whatever the Phillies bullpen is eating, Hembree pitched well in his only appearance in a Phils uniform so far. He gave up just one hit and no runs in 1.2 innings on Sunday night. Essentially, he is the second coming of Dennis Eckersly compared to everyone else in that bullpen.
Game One: Tuesday, August 25
Time: 6:05 p.m.
Radio: 94.1 FM WIP & WTTM1680
Game Two: Wednesday, August 26
Time: 6:05 p.m.
Radio: 94.1 FM WIP & WTTM1680
Game Three: Thursday, August 27
Time: 6:37 p.m.
Radio: 94.1 FM WIP & WTTM1680