PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 09: Starting pitcher Cole Hamels #35 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch during the home opener against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on April 9, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
This weekend, the Phillies will head to Washington, D.C., where they will take on the Nationals in a three-game set, in what figures to be the most important series of the young season for the reigning N.L. East champions.
And even though it's too early to draw any real conclusions about what this series could mean for the rest of the season, it is a great opportunity for the Phillies to get above the .500 mark, while simultaneously putting a dent in the Nationals' modest three and a half game lead.
While some are focused on the Nats' recent campaign to keep Philadelphians out of the ballpark, this series will pit the Phillies – winners of two of three against Atlanta – against the division-leading Nationals, who have lost five of their last seven games.
The Nationals (16-9), who have enjoyed the division lead since the jump, have done so behind a league-leading 2.47 team ERA, thanks to a rotation that consists of young phenom Stephen Strasburg (1.13), RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1.89), and LHP Gio Gonzalez (1.82).
Despite a strong pitching staff, the Nationals have been unable to generate much offense, thanks to injuries to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, as well as first baseman Michael Morse. They rank near the bottom of the league in runs scored, batting average, slugging, and OPS. However, the recently called-up Bryce Harper, who has impressed in his first week as a big leaguer, could very well be the offensive spark that the Nationals need.
It should be an interesting series to watch, as the Nationals will throw their three best pitchers against the Phillies, who are riding a bit of a hot streak heading into the series opener on Friday night.
Game 1: Friday, 7:05 Kyle Kendrick (0-2, 6.59) vs Stephen Strasburg – This has all the makings of a trap game, thanks entirely to the pitching matchup. So far this season, Strasburg is proving to be as good as advertised, while Kyle Kendrick is, well, Kyle Kendrick. The matchup is so uneven that it almost seems impossible for the Nationals to lose. That is they play the games.
Game 2: Saturday, 1:05 Vance Worley (2-1, 1.97) vs Gio Gonzalez. Gonzalez, once a Phillies farmhand, shined in his first month with the Nats, when he posted a 10.3 K/9 ratio to go along with his 1.82 ERA. He's got great stuff, but can be prone to control problems. The key in this matching is the Phillies' patience, as they could drive him out of the game early if they are able to lay off the junk.
Game 3: Sunday, 8:00 Cole Hamels (3-1, 2.78) vs Jordan Zimmermann The series finale puts Ace lefty Cole Hamels against right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who is a fine, young pitcher in his own right. While he isn't the strikeout artist as either Strasburg or Gonzalez, Zimmerman has had impeccable control so far this season, and has walked less than a batter per nine through 33.1 innings pitched so far this season.
If the Phillies want to have a shot at taking the series from the first place Nationals, they'll need to summon the offense that made its appearance during the Braves series, where they put up 21 runs in three games. Although 13 of those runs game in one game, the Phillies demonstrated a solid plate approach and were able to come up with the big hits at the most opportune of times.
Even though the Nationals have an edge when it comes to starting pitching, the Phillies' offense should prove to be the difference maker. While they aren't going to light the scoreboard up, they'll just need to be good enough, so as to give the starting pitchers – namely Vance Worley and Cole Hamels – enough breathing room to shut down the Nats.
Only time will tell if the Nationals' hot start is for real, and whether or not the Phillies can compete without having any power in the middle of the order. This is only the first of several meetings between these two teams these season, but it figures to be the first matchup of what could be a long-standing rivalry.