Phillies-Nationals 5 Things: Road Doesn't Get Any Easier in Sunday's Doubleheader | NBC 10 Philadelphia

Phillies-Nationals 5 Things: Road Doesn't Get Any Easier in Sunday's Doubleheader

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    Phillies-Nationals 5 Things: Road Doesn't Get Any Easier in Sunday's Doubleheader
    CSNPhilly.com
    Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Road doesn't get any easier in Sunday's doubleheader

    Phillies (13-20) vs. Nationals (23-12)
    1:35 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

    Let's play two! With Friday's rainout, the Phillies and Nationals will play a doubleheader at Nationals Park on Sunday with their previously scheduled 1:35 afternoon start followed by a 7:05 night game. The Phils will try to rebound after Bryce Harper's walk-off home run handed them their third straight loss on Saturday night.

    Jeremy Hellickson takes on Gio Gonzalez in the afternoon before Vince Velasquez faces 2016 NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer under the lights.

    Here are five things to know for today's pair of games:

    1. Phillies in doubleheaders
    This will be the Phillies' first doubleheader since their penultimate games of the 2015 season against the Marlins on Oct. 3. In 2015, they played three doubleheaders, one each with the Nationals, Cubs and Marlins.

    Both teams are allowed to call up a 26th man to their roster for the doubleheader. The Phillies are utilizing the spot for an extra pitcher, Ben Lively, while the Nationals are also calling up a to-be-determined pitcher.

    In their set with the Nationals on June 28, 2015, the Phillies earned a split before getting swept by the Cubs and Marlins in their respective twin billings. Stephen Strasburg outdueled Kevin Correia in the opening game before the Phillies lit up Tanner Roark for eight runs in the nightcap. Odubel Herrera had three hits in that day's victory while Cesar Hernandez put together a four-hit game for a team-high six hit day. Hernandez even added three stolen bases over the two games.

    In all, the Phillies have played 39 doubleheaders since 2000. They've swept 17 of them, split 12 and lost both 10 times. They've faced the Nationals (since they moved from Montreal) in four of those, splitting twice with each team picking up a sweep.  

    Sunday will be the earliest the Phillies have played a doubleheader since they lost two contests to the Cubs on Apr. 18, 2001.

    Last season was the first season in franchise history that did not feature a doubleheader.

    2. First games first
    The Phils and Nats lead off with a duel between Hellickson and Gonzalez. After Sunday, Hellickson will have faced the Nationals in half of his eight starts this year.

    And he's fared well overall against the Nationals thus far. In 16 2/3 innings, he's given up just five runs, good for a 2.70 ERA. The Phillies have won all three of those starts.

    However, his last start vs. Washington was his worst of the three. He lasted just 4 2/3 innings, and allowed eight baserunners, three runs and two home runs. In two starts overall in May, Hellickson has allowed nine runs and five home runs after giving up just six runs and two homers over his first five appearances. He's also walked five batters vs. just three free passes in April.

    Meanwhile, Gonzalez is having a mini-resurgence in 2017. He's 3-1 with a 2.64 ERA over 44 1/3 innings. The 31-year-old lefty has been a workhorse for the Nationals and this year is no different, as he averages 6.33 innings per start while not missing any turn through the rotation. His ERA declined year over year each season from 2012 to 2016, culminating in a 4.57 mark last year.

    It's not as if Gonzalez has seen an increase in his fastball velocity. Quite the opposite in reality: His fastball and sinker are both down more than 1mph. However, he's changed his approach, decreasing his sinker usage with far more four-seam fastballs, curveballs and changeups. His approach kept the Phillies off balance on April 16, when he fired 7 1/3 innings and gave up three runs (two earned).

    The southpaw has held the Phillies to two earned runs or fewer in each of his last six home starts against them (h/t MLB.com).

    3. Sunday night showcase
    Both teams toss out quite the contrast in the nightcap, going from soft-tossing starters to flamethrowers with Velasquez and Scherzer toeing the rubber.

    Scherzer has been one of the best pitchers in baseball again this season. Hot off his second Cy Young, he's actually improved across the board. His ERA is a career-best 2.59 while reaching career highs in innings per start, strikeouts per nine innings and WHIP. His 62 strikeouts and 0.884 WHIP are the best marks in the National League. It's scary to think, but Scherzer may be reaching new heights at age 32. He's struck out 11 batters in back-to-back games.

    And he's dominated the Phillies in his career. He has an 8-1 record with a 2.19 ERA vs. the Phils in 12 career starts. That ERA is his second best against any team with at least five starts (Blue Jays). He beat the Phillies on Apr. 7, giving up just two runs in 6 2/3 innings. Herrera has the best numbers of any regular against the righty with nine hits and five walks in 33 plate appearances. Andres Blanco is 5 for 11 with a HR off Scherzer while Cameron Rupp also has a HR.

    For Velasquez, Sunday is a significant test. He'll face a tired Nationals lineup that lit him up in the later innings last Saturday. Velasquez lasted seven innings -- a season-best -- and struck out eight batters while walking none. However, he gave up six runs thanks to two home runs while taking the loss. He struck out 10 Nationals on Apr. 7, but lasted just four innings while the Nats scored four runs.

    Velasquez is off to a rocky start to 2017. He's shown flashes of brilliance like he did on Saturday, but his 5.94 ERA and eight home runs allowed tell a different story. His walk and home run rates have increased and it has led to poor performances.

    4. The road ahead
    Facing the Nationals isn't a treat. A doubleheader less so. But the Phillies have an arduous stretch coming up beginning next week.

    The Phillies play the second and third games of a nine-game road trip Sunday and then have a day off Monday. After that, they play 16 games in 16 days, a stretch that takes them through the end of May. Following a day off on June 1, they play on 17 consecutive days, making for 33 games over 34 days.

    One bright spot is the return of Aaron Nola, who will make his second rehab start on Monday and should be able to join the Phillies soon. They could get through the stretch with just five starters in theory, but after Nola returns, it may make sense to use a spot starter like Pivetta to keep the rotation fresh.

    In the 16 games in 16 days starting on Tuesday, the Phillies travel to Texas to face the Rangers before heading to Pittsburgh. Neither matchup lives up to what one would have expected before the season. The Pirates have been in the cellar of the NL Central at 15-22 while the Rangers, who had the AL's best record in 2016, are just 18-20.

    When the Phillies return home, they have to face the upstart Rockies and then the Reds. The Rockies have been a mix of their normal offensive bursts to go with surprising contributions from their rookie starters and a lights out bullpen that was among the worst groups in 2016. The Reds have overcome a patchwork rotation with a lot of hitting and an improved bullpen as well. The Phils then close May with their first trip of the season to Miami.

    5. This and that
    • Keep an eye on Harper's at-bats on Sunday. He waved away Edubray Ramos after hitting his walk-off home run and that could lead to some tension between the two squads during the doubleheader.

    • Maikel Franco snapped an 0-for-16 slide with a single in the fourth inning on Saturday. However, he's just 1 for 16 with a walk vs. Gonzalez and 1 for 18 off Scherzer.

    • The Phillies are 4-6 vs. the Nationals yet are outscoring the Nats, 51-45, in those contests.

    • After posting an 11-12 April, the Phils are 2-8 this month.