It doesn't feel like hyperbole to call these next three nights against the Dodgers the most interesting and important series for the Phillies so far in 2018.
Between the two teams' success, the pitching matchups, the Manny Machado addition and the last chance (barring playoffs) for Phillies fans to see Chase Utley as a player at Citizens Bank Park, there's no shortage of storylines.
The Phillies and Dodgers both have at least a share of first place, with the Phils tied with the Braves and the Dodgers a game ahead of the surging Rockies.
On opening day, nobody expected the Phillies would be in this position. In mid-May, few expected the Dodgers to turn things around so quickly. The Dodgers were 10 games under .500 on May 16 and have gone 38-18 since, largely because of their immense power. The Dodgers already had eight players with double-digit home runs before trading for Machado.
This series will be a big measuring stick for the Phillies, just as the Yankees series was at the end of June. The Dodgers are the most talented team the Phillies have faced since those three games against the Yanks.
The Phils will not have to deal with Clayton Kershaw, but on Monday, they'll see second-year breakout right-hander Ross Stripling, who is 8-2 with a 2.08 ERA and a gaudy 108-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Zach Eflin pitches for the Phillies in that game.
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In Game 2, it's Aaron Nola (12-3, 2.30) against boom-or-bust righty Kenta Maeda (7-5, 3.12).
The Phils will go with Jake Arrieta in the series finale; the Dodgers' starter is TBD but will likely be lefty Rich Hill. Hill, like Maeda, can be untouchable or can be pulled in the third inning on any given night.
The two runners-up in the Machado sweepstakes were the Brewers and Phillies. And don't you know it, Machado's first two series as a Dodger are against the Brewers and Phillies.
Machado was cheered heavily when the Orioles came to town the week of July 4. A lot of times, players will say they block out the noise, but Machado admitted the day of the Home Run Derby that he heard and appreciated the applause.
"Philly. I did hear that nice ovation when I was there," he told reporters. "That was pretty awesome."
On Friday night in Milwaukee, Machado was booed ... which is a pretty silly reaction considering he didn't pick his trade destination. Philly fans are smart enough to know that and to know that giving him a huge reception can only help the team's attempt to land him in free agency.
Machado has been batting second and playing shortstop for the Dodgers. That's where he'll be on most nights unless the Dodgers decide to rest Justin Turner and move Machado to third and play Chris Taylor at short. (The Max Muncy experiment at third base went horribly this weekend in Milwaukee and it's unlikely the Dodgers go back to that alignment.)
Machado lengthens an already deep and powerful Dodgers lineup. Phillies starting pitchers have their work cut out this week. The Dodgers have a bunch of players - Machado, Turner, Muncy, Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger - who do not expand the strike zone. They see a lot of pitches, all while striking out less than the league average. Expect some high-stress innings.
Last chance to see Chase
There will be huge reactions every time Utley comes to the plate this week, but Phillies fans may see him only as a pinch-hitter. Utley has started just two of the Dodgers' last 19 games, and that was before the team added maybe the best infielder in baseball.
Between Machado, Muncy, Turner, Taylor, Bellinger and Logan Forsythe, the Dodgers have no real reason to start Utley unless they face a starting pitcher he's owned. Utley's also been a big weapon off the bench, going 12 for 27 (.444) as a pinch-hitter with three doubles and a triple.