Phillies (36-45) vs. Royals (42-37)
5:50 p.m. on CSN
It may be July 4th weekend but there's still plenty of baseball on tap with the defending World Series champions playing Game 2 of a three-game set at Citizens Bank Park. Aaron Nola tries to right the ship against Danny Duffy and the Royals on Saturday evening.
Five things to know for the 5:50 start.
1. Fixing Nola
Maybe a peculiar first-pitch time could get the Phillies' potential ace of the future back in the win column.
There are plenty of reasons why the Phillies have tailed off in the last month. A tougher schedule, the offense regressing, a slumping bullpen, etc. But nothing is as eyebrow raising as Nola's catastropic June that, fortunately for him, is over.
In 19 innings during June, he gave up 40(!) hits, 25 runs (22 earned), nine walks and two home runs. He failed to complete four innings in each of his last four starts, leaving the month with a 10.42 ERA in five starts.
Considering Nola's ERA was 2.88 going into June and is 4.45 coming out, it's easy to ask whether something is wrong. Looking into the Pitch F/X data, there is nothing glaringly off.
Sure, his velocity was slightly down his last couple starts, but it was up in his first two poor starts of the month. His release point is in the same place it has been all season.
More encouraging are his 23 strikeouts in those 19 June innings. He's still able to get swings and misses, although nearly everything else is getting hit to the tune of a .412 batting average against. The Royals won't have their full lineup due to NL rules and Lorenzo Cain/Mike Moustakas' injuries, so Nola will have something going for him on Saturday.
2. Duff man
The last time you saw Danny Duffy, he was probably a reliever. That was his role during the Royals' postseason run. It was also his role to start the season.
After dealing with injuries in 2012-13, Duffy had a breakout season in 2014, starting 25 games with a 2.53 ERA in 149 ⅓ innings. But he took a step back in 2015 with a slightly increased walk rate and over a hit per inning.
The Royals' signing of Ian Kennedy enabled them to keep Duffy in the bullpen to start this season. However, Kris Medlen injured his shoulder in mid-May and Duffy filled his spot in the rotation. The results have been some of the best of his young career.
In nine starts, Duffy has a 3.33 ERA (he had a 3.00 as a reliever), striking out 58 batters and walking 11 in 48 ⅔ innings. His 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings are the best of his career. The glaring issue for him has been home runs: He's allowed 10 in those nine starts.
The reason for his increase in strikeouts may be his increased velocity. His fastball averages 95.8 mph after 93.6 mph in 2015, although this may be because over 25 percent of his innings came in relief, where he is obstensibly able to throw harder. His offspeed pitches are a mid-80s curveball and a mid-80s changeup, the latter of which is used primarily vs. righties.
3. Not quite the same WS champs
If you watched the Royals' WS run, you likely aren't familiar with some of their starters, particularly these three: OF Paulo Orlando, 2B Whit Merrifield and 3B Cheslor Cuthbert.
Orlando was on the playoff roster but was stuck behind veteran Alex Rios in right field. With Rios gone and Cain on the disabled list, Orlando has moved into an everyday role. In 192 plate appearances, he has proven himself to be a strong contact hitter who you would never confuse for a slugger. He has just 12 extra-base hits, but his .328 batting average is best on the team. Small fun fact: Orlando is just the third Brazilian-born player in MLB history.
Merrifield has been in the Royals' organization since he was drafted in 2010, but he made his MLB debut on May 18, 2016. The 27-year-old has supplanted Omar Infante as Kansas City's everyday second baseman thanks to a sterling start to his major-league career. While he strikes out a fair amount (33 times in 161 at-bats), his .311 batting average in 38 games has been more than enough to keep him in the lineup.
Cuthbert played 19 games in 2015 but is still technically a rookie. The 23-year-old took over third base duties after Moustakas tore his ACL. While Merrifield and Orlando have impressed with contact, Cuthbert has provided some power, hitting seven home runs in 185 plate appearances. Like Merrifield and Orlando, he has struck out a lot, fanning 39 times in just 47 games.
4. Players to watch
Phillies: A lefty on the mound likely means yet another start for OF Peter Bourjos. Bourjos had an electric month of June in a small sample, sporting a .410/.455/.623 triple slash line with 25 hits in 67 plate appearances. He added a hit in four at-bats on Friday against the Royals.
Royals: Is Kendrys Morales really going to play the outfield? One would normally have figured Morales, who is normally a DH, would have simply been a pinch hitter in this series, but he started in right field Friday night with questionable results. Does this continue or will he move to the bench due to his fielding issues?
5. This and that
• In his last four appearances, Jeanmar Gomez has no strikeouts yet he hasn't given up a run in 4 ⅓ innings. In that stretch, he's 1-0 with three saves.
• None of the Royals' hitters have had at-bats against Nola. Andres Blanco is 3 for 6 against Duffy, but no other Phillies have at-bats against Duffy.
• The Phillies have not won a series against the Royals since June 18-20, 2004. In two series since then (2007, 2013), the Phillies lost two of three in each.
• The Phillies have won four straight games. They haven't won five straight since a six-game win streak from April 26-May 1.