Phillies-Nationals 5 Things: Tough Assignment for Aaron Nola

Phillies (3-6) at Nationals (5-4)
4:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies open up a road series in D.C. after getting Thursday off to recover from that ugly series against the Mets.

It's the second straight weekend the Phillies are facing the Nats. They won two of three games last week at Citizens Bank Park with a 17-run outburst Saturday and a walk-off win Sunday.

Let's check out the matchup:

1. No early favors
The schedule-makers made things pretty rough on the Phillies early in the season.

With two series apiece against the Nationals and Mets in early April, the Phils will have played 12 of their first 15 games against those two NL contenders.

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At the end of April (29-30), they're in L.A. to face the Dodgers. Following that is a four-game series on the road against the reigning champion Cubs, then three more with the Nationals at home.

The mid- and late-summer schedule eases up, but this is setting the Phillies up for a potentially huge hole.

The worst thing about facing the Nats and Mets so often early in the year is that pitching is usually ahead of hitting in April and those two teams each have multiple aces.

It's one thing to face an offensive juggernaut because big bats can be shut down on any given night. But when you know you're entering multiple series against Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg so early it can affect a team's confidence. The players wouldn't admit it but they know how daunting the task is.

The Phils drew Scherzer and Strasburg last weekend, then deGrom and Harvey earlier this week. This weekend they'll see Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, then in the upcoming Mets series they'll face Syndergaard.

2. Nola's second start
Aaron Nola faces the Nationals for the second straight start. He pitched well last Saturday, allowing three runs over six innings with seven strikeouts. 

Nola induced 13 swinging strikes in 89 pitches (a solid number) but if there was a troubling sign it was his low number of first-pitch strikes -- he threw just 13 to the 24 batters he faced.

Nola was aided, of course, by the Phillies' 12-run first inning. Any pitcher welcomes that kind of run support because you then get to attack, attack, attack. You don't need to hit perfect spots because it would require three grand slams to tie it up.

But wiggle room aside, Nola's stuff looked sharp in his season debut. His two-seam fastball was dancing back toward the outside corner against right-handed hitters and his curveball had that knee-buckling break we've become accustomed to.

It's never easy to face the same team twice in a week and it's even harder when it's an offense as loaded as Washington's. 

Bryce Harper is 8 for 14 lifetime off Nola with two home runs. Daniel Murphy is 6 for 16 with three doubles, a triple and a homer. Jayson Werth is 6 for 17 with two homers. 

All told, current Nats have hit .312 off Nola with an .896 OPS. He's made seven starts against the Nats and gone 1-3 with a 5.26 ERA.

3. Strasburg again
The Phillies hit Strasburg better last week in South Philly than they ever have, scoring three runs off him in seven innings. They did it by taking advantage of their few run-scoring opportunities and by running the bases well. Tommy Joseph stole his second career base and scored on a single. Cesar Hernandez legged out an infield hit to plate the second run, and he scored from first on Howie Kendrick's double. All three runs came with two outs.

Maikel Franco was hitless in the game against Strasburg but had three quality plate appearances against him, walking twice and lining out sharply to center field. On Wednesday night, after his grand slam, Franco said that the game against Strasburg was got him going.

"I see Strasburg well, I think I'm 3 for 10 with a homer and two walks," Franco said. You're actually 3 for 11, but we'll let it slide, Maik.

Since that game against Strasburg, Franco has gone 5 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs. The season is extremely young but Franco is seeing more pitches than ever before and swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone.

4. Remember Ryan?
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is on fire. Through nine games, he's gone 13 for 34 (.382) with three doubles and three home runs. 

It's a welcome sign for Washington's offense because Zimmerman hasn't been an impactful offensive player since 2013. He hit .218 in 2016, missed 67 games in 2015 and missed 101 games in 2014.

Once upon a time, Zimmerman was the face of the Nats' franchise. He's since slid behind Harper and Murphy in the pecking order, but when Washington has all four of Harper, Murphy, Zimmerman and Werth going, this is an almost impossible lineup to shut down. Two lefties and two righties, all of whom have plate discipline and power.

It was Zimmerman's three-run home run last weekend that ended Jeanmar Gomez's run as the Phillies' closer.

Zimmerman has played basically a full major-league season against the Phillies (163 career games). In those 696 plate appearances, he's hit .266/.329/.453 with 48 doubles, 21 home runs and 92 RBIs. His numbers vs. the Phils were much better a few years ago; since 2015, he's hit just .200 in 105 at-bats.

5. This and that
• The Phillies' pitching staff has been awful with two strikes. They've allowed nine home runs with two strikes and no other team has allowed more than six.

Their opponents' slugging percentage with two strikes is .443 and the next-worst team is at .364.

However, the Phillies also have the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors with two strikes (behind the Cubs). It's been all or nothing.

• Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris and Pat Neshek have combined to pitch 12 scoreless innings so far this season with 15 strikeouts. They've allowed just 10 baserunners. The back-end of the bullpen is the unquestioned strength of this team -- it's just a matter of getting the game into their hands with the lead.

• All three games this weekend in D.C. are day games: 4:05 this afternoon, 1:05 on Saturday and 1:35 on Sunday.

• The Phillies are 14-27 against the Nats since 2014.

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