There has been much warranted hoopla surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies (3-0) visit to the nation’s capital for two games against the Washington Nationals (1-2) this week.
Much of the talk and excitement is understandably focused on the return of Bryce Harper to face the team for whom he played over the first seven years of his career.
However, this is also a big early series for the simple fact that these two teams are rivals in the National League East Division. For the very first time in the history of the two clubs since the Nationals franchise moved to Washington for the 2005 season, both are expected to be contenders.
This is just the first of 19 games between the two teams this season. While it certainly will decide nothing on its own, getting off to a good start with a big victory at Nationals Park in front of a hostile crowd would make a nice statement for the Phillies.
It will not be an easy task. In order to make that big victory happen the Phillies are going to have to find a way to overcome Nationals ace starting pitcher Max Scherzer. The 34-year-old has won three Cy Young Awards and finished among the top five in voting a half-dozen times over his previous 11 big-league seasons, including as the NL runner-up last year.
Scherzer has fashioned a dominating record over the course of 17 career appearances against the Phillies. The veteran right-hander has faced 445 Philly hitters and held them to a .200 cumulative BAA (batting average against) and .586 OPS. He has struck out 138 of those hitters, the fourth-most that he has registered against any team.
It has to be mentioned that Scherzer has done the vast majority of that damage over four seasons from 2015-18, when the Phillies were transitioning during a major rebuilding program. The team that he will face tonight bears no resemblance whatsoever to those recent groups.
After finishing 22nd in Major League Baseball in OPS a year ago the Phillies are now second in that key gauge of offensive proficiency. Sure it’s only after three games. But the improvement in the club’s offensive attack is plain to see.
The Phillies have added four All-Stars including a pair of former National League Most Valuable Players this season. The first five hitters in the everyday lineup make for one of the most dynamic groups in baseball: Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, Harper, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto.
The new additions have allowed second-year manager Gabe Kapler to slide Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco down to the bottom of the batting order. All three of those players have spent most of the last three or four years hitting at the top.
It all makes for a more potent lineup top-to-bottom on paper. In the season-opening series against the defending division champion Atlanta Braves that potential translated from paper to reality. The Phillies blasted eight home runs over the three games, fully demonstrating their new-found power.
Despite scoring 23 runs, there were some hopefully minor warning signs. The Phillies lived off those long balls. Overall they produced just 21 hits, stole just one base, and collectively batted just .236 against a fairly young pitching staff.
Scherzer has yielded just 237 homers over the course of 339 career games. He has allowed just 45 over 64 games during the last two seasons. In his first start of 2019 he allowed just two hits over 7.2 innings against the New York Mets. One of those was a first inning home run off the bat of Robinson Cano.
Right-handers have hit just .197 and .577 OPS against Scherzer over his career while lefties have a .243 average and .717 OPS against him. Harper and Herrera are the only two lefty bats in the Phillies everyday lineup, with Hernandez a switch-hitter.
Herrera has the most success of any Phillies hitter against ‘Mad Max’, holding a .341 career average with two homers over 41 at-bats against him. Hoskins is 0-11 against Scherzer while Franco has hit just .125 over 24 at-bats against him.
If he can set aside all of the emotion and focus squarely on the match-up at hand, Harper could be a major key tonight. He brings difference-making power to the Phillies lineup from the left side of the plate, something that the Phillies have clearly lacked in their prior meetings with Scherzer.
Kapler has used the same starting lineup for the first three games. Might the skipper give McCutchen a rest and start the left-handed bat of Nick Williams? Andrew Knapp, a switch-hitter, could also bring a lefty-hitting option behind the plate. Realmuto has just an .083 average against Scherzer over 36 career at-bats. But it’s hard to imagine this being the time to give the Phillies new catcher his first rest of the young season.
McCutchen does indeed have better career numbers against lefties. However, his numbers off right-handed pitchers are not bad at all. Segura actually hits righties better than southpaws. Don’t be surprised if the lineup you saw over the first three games at Citizens Bank Park is the same one that he puts on the field tonight at Nationals Park.
The Phillies are going to need a solid outing from their own starting pitcher, 24-year-old Zach Eflin, in order to give the offense a chance as it tries to dent Scherzer. Whatever lineup Kapler chooses to run out, finding a way to reach the Nationals ace for a few runs may end up the key to victory for the Phillies.
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