2017 Series Preview

Series Preview: Philadelphia Phillies (13-19) at Washington Nationals (22-12), May 12-14

Nationals.pngAre you tired of the Nationals yet? I have been since 2012 or so, but if they seem especially thorny this season it’s because the Phillies have already faced them 9 times out of their first 32 games. The Phils are 4-5 in those games but have outscored Washington 47-39 thanks to a joyful 17-3 walloping they put on in April. Let’s all agree to remember that fondly for the rest of the season and pretend the less positive games never happened.

WHAT TO EXPECT

It feels like a bad time to square up against a team Phillies fans hate losing to as much as they hate losing to Washington. Philadelphia is 2-7 in May, while Washington has won 6 of their last 10 games. The storyline has been the Phillies bullpen, which has allowed 21 runs in 35 ⅔ innings to start the month. But starting pitching has been equally if not more unhelpful, pitching to a 6.56 ERA in the same span and tossing only 48 out of the 83 2/3 innings of action the team has seen. That puts undue strain on the bullpen, which either exposes it as a flaw or causes it to become one by fatiguing pitchers used to a lighter workload.

Don’t expect that to get better right away. The Nationals have been baseball’s best team at the plate in 2017, including a .360 wOBA and scoring 27 more runs than any other team. Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Jayson Werth are OPSing 1.103, .973, 1.047, and 1.252, respectively, against the Phillies. The league average OPS in 2017 is .729.

The optimist will point out that the Nationals have actually hit the Phillies worse than any other team they’ve faced this season, slashing .249/.316/.441. If that trend continues, the Phillies could actually pull this series out, as their own offense has been tolerable even during their current cold streak.

PROBABLE STARTERS

Friday, 7:05 p.m., Postponed

Friday night’s game was moved to Sunday as part of a double-header.

Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Nick Pivetta (5.40) vs. Tanner Roark (3.46 ERA)

Fangraphs gives Washington a 63% chance of winning this game (and over 60% odds of winning each game of the series), and the pitching matchup is partly responsible for that. Roark had a tough 2015 but threw to a 2.83 ERA over 210 innings last year. In his 7 starts this year, his peripherals are remarkably similar to what they were over that span of success: his 7.34 K/9, 3.02 BB/9, 0.86 HR/9, and batted ball outcomes have barely changed. In other words, don’t be surprised if the success continues.

Pivetta has less of a track record in the majors and will make just his third career start on Saturday. He’s given up 4 home runs in 10 innings so far, a rate one would hope will be unsustainable. Certainly he’s been a BABIP victim — opponents are hitting .452 on balls in play — so he should get better once those things come back to earth.

Sunday, 1:35 p.m., Jeremy Hellickson (3:49 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (2.64 ERA)

Hellickson hasn’t gone 5 full innings in his last pair of starts, allowing a total of 9 earned runs in that span. Don’t worry, the more recent of them only came against the same team he’ll be facing on Sunday in the first game of the doubleheader. On the bright side, he also faced the Nationals in one of his best starts of the season, so he is by no means doomed to self-destruct.

Gio Gonzalez, who feels like he’s been around long enough that he should be getting old and leaving me alone, sees his ERA outperforming his FIP for the first time in his career, and by a wide margin: Phillies fans will hope his high 5.01 FIP is more predictive than the daunting 2.64 ERA that will flash on-screen when the game airs. Either way, he’s done remarkably well against the Phillies in his career, including a 1.11 WHIP and 2.66 ERA over 132 innings. Some of that was even when they were good.

Sunday, 7:05 p.m., Vincent Velasquez (5.94 ERA) vs. Max Scherzer (2.59 ERA)

It’s hard to find things to say about either of these pitchers that hasn’t been said a million times. One is a guy no one knows what to expect from, and the other has been one of baseball’s most consistently exceptional pitchers for years. Scherzer is up to his old tricks, striking out over 11 batters per 9 innings, which is probably illegal in some states. He’s inducing less hard contact than he had in his previous time with the Nats. He’s made one start this year that wasn’t a quality start.

Velasquez, to be fair, had a solid start to his last outing (which, of course, was against Washington), but unraveled when he allowed 4 runs in the sixth inning. He started the game by pitching efficiently through the first few innings, which should be the learning opportunity he takes away from that start and tries to reproduce on Sunday.

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