Phillies-Nationals 5 Things: Avoiding a Sweep Tough Vs. Max Scherzer

Phillies (26-26) vs. Nationals (32-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

A season-worst five-game losing streak has the Phillies back at .500 for the first time since they were 10-10. Tuesday's 5-1 loss to Washington made it four straight series losses for the Phils, who had won their previous four sets.

Is this the beginning of the end of their 2016 relevancy? The upcoming schedule certainly does them no favors. After finishing with the Nationals, the Phillies have a winnable four-game series against the Brewers, but following that their next 10 games are against the Cubs, Nationals and Blue Jays. Those three teams are a combined 33 games over .500.

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It will be hard for the Phils to maintain the winning ways they displayed during the season's first six or seven weeks, and that's especially true tonight.

1. Can Scherzer be solved?
The Phillies face Nationals ace Max Scherzer tonight for the third time this season and the seventh time since he signed with Washington prior to 2015.

In Scherzer's six starts against the Phils as a National, he's 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP and 44 strikeouts in 43 innings. The Phils did, however, win the game the last time they faced Scherzer, knocking him out after six innings. 

Scherzer walked four Phillies in that game on April 26, an odd trend for him in 2016 — he's walked three or more batters in five of 11 starts. He has 22 walks in 73⅓ innings this season after walking just 34 batters in 228⅔ last season. Control has just eluded Scherzer at times and it's led to some crooked numbers, including last week when he allowed five runs to the Cardinals in the third inning of a seven-inning start that was otherwise scoreless.

Scherzer enters 5-4 with a 4.05 ERA on the year. He's struck out 90 batters, including 20 four starts ago and 10 the start after that. On any given night he can no-hit you or strike out double-digit batters.

Current Phillies are 25 for 131 (.191) against Scherzer with three homers, seven walks and 32 strikeouts. The most success has come from Odubel Herrera (5 for 16, four walks), Andres Blanco (3 for 6, homer) and Cesar Hernandez (5 for 14, double).

The Phils know the drill by now with Scherzer: a lot of four-seam fastballs in the mid-90s, sweeping sliders that look enticing but dart and dive off the outside corner, and changeups to lefties. 

Aside from walking more batters this season, Scherzer has been extremely home-run prone. He's allowed a major-league leading 15, or 1.8 per nine innings. Nine of those homers have come against his fastball. In fact, Scherzer's opponents have hit 28 home runs in 592 at-bats ending in a fastball the last two seasons.

2. Need more from Morgan
Adam Morgan might not be able to afford a few more outings like his last one. At Wrigley Field last Friday, Morgan allowed six runs in four innings. It was the second time in his last three starts he was rocked — Morgan gave up seven runs in just 3⅔ innings to the Reds on May 15.

Those two ugly outings have Morgan at 1-3 with a 6.67 ERA and 1.52 WHIP on the season. In 21 major-league starts the last two years, he's 6-10 with a 5.05 ERA — 21 percent worse than the NL average over that span. 

Morgan is going to keep a job in the Phillies' rotation only if he's keeping them in games. He hasn't been doing that, completing six innings in just two of six starts. The Phillies have lost four of the last five games he's pitched and been outscored by 11 runs.

Interestingly, Morgan has never faced the Nats. That could give him a slight advantage, but probably not since there is nothing special or overly deceiving about his repertoire. 

The Nationals have three right-handed hitters who have locked in lately in Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon, which could spell trouble for Morgan, who's already allowed 13 extra-base hits to righties in just 92 at-bats. That's not to mention the Nats' two best hitters in Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, who have the ability to do damage against left-handers.

It's going to be a tough one for Morgan and the Phillies tonight.

3. Joseph to start
Ryan Howard started the last two games against right-handed pitchers Tanner Roark and Joe Ross, but Tommy Joseph will get the nod at first base tonight. The Phillies want to get Joseph more reps and at-bats, and Howard is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts in his career against Scherzer. Easy decision.

There was some justification to playing Howard last night. He doubled in the ninth inning off of Jonathan Papelbon on Monday and any possible momentum for the aging first basemen is worth trying to bottle. It also made sense given Ross' platoon splits entering last night: .295 BA for lefties, .209 for righties.

Through his first 40 big-league plate appearances, Joseph has hit .270 with a double, three homers, five RBIs, one walk and 12 strikeouts. He's held his own against same-handed pitching, hitting two of his homers against right-handers. 

But what's stuck out most from Joseph is the consistently hard contact he's made. Joseph has put the ball in play 27 times and 14 have been line drives.

He's never faced someone like Scherzer before, though. It's going to be a challenge for him to lay off that sweeping slider coming from Scherzer's unique arm slot.

4. Baserunning blunders
The Phillies continue to be one of the majors' worst baserunning teams in 2016, something a powerless team absolutely cannot afford to be. The Phils have 21 stolen bases and have been caught 18 times. Only the Reds have been caught more, but they also have six more steals. The Phils' stolen base success rate of 53.9 percent is fourth-worst in baseball.

They may have run themselves out of a run-scoring opportunity in the first inning last night. Herrera led off with a walk, and Freddy Galvis worked a full count before chasing a pitch out of the zone on a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play. Herrera did not get a good jump and was out by a mile at second base.

It's not even just the steals the Phillies have struggled with on the bases. They've also made bad decisions on two infield flies, been picked off four times, and made a major-league high seven outs between first and second base either being doubled off or thrown out trying to turn a single into a double or advancing on a wild pitch/passed ball.

The Phillies don't have any margin for error, and they hoped to be a much more fundamentally sound and effective team on the basepaths.

5. This and that
• Maikel Franco is on another skid, going 1 for 15 over his last four games. Franco has hit .221 with a .261 on-base percentage since April 30.

• The Phillies have been out-homered 31-13 at Citizens Bank Park. Their opponents have 82 extra-base hits to their 50 at CBP.

• As hard as Murphy has hit the Phils this season, his overall batting average is 30 points higher. Murphy is 11 for 30 (.367) against the Phillies with four doubles, a triple and two home runs. He leads the majors with a .397 batting average.

• Scherzer's opponents are hitting .344 with five home runs this season when putting the ball in play on the first pitch. 

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