SAN DIEGO - The Phillies open a three-game series against the San Diego Padres on Friday night and they really need to make some hay against the team with the worst record in the National League.
The Phillies enter Friday leading the Atlanta Braves by a game in the NL East and the Washington Nationals by 5½ games.
Complete coverage of the Fightin' Phils and their MLB rivals from NBC Sports Philadelphia.
This race has been so close that it would not be a surprise to see it go down to the wire. The Phillies and Braves play each other seven times over the final two weeks of the season.
But the Nationals remain dangerous, talented and experienced and they have the potential to wreak havoc on the division race as they square off with the Phillies six times in the final two weeks of this month and three more times in September.
The Nationals are only one of the teams that will make the Phillies' upcoming schedule so difficult.
The Phils play Boston, the best team in the majors, on Tuesday and Wednesday at home. The Phils split a two-game series in Boston last week, but it took exceptional pitching for that to happen because the Red Sox's pitching held the Phils to four runs in two games. The Phils will miss Chris Sale for the second time and that's a good thing. The way things line up, the Phillies will be looking for Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez to stop the majors' most high-powered offense.
On paper, the schedule looks to briefly soften up after the Sox leave town and the New York Mets come in for a five-game series that includes a Thursday doubleheader. But make no mistake, that won't be an easy series for the Phillies. They are scheduled to see both Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom and those two can handcuff any opponent.
After the Mets, nine of the Phillies' next 12 games will be against Washington and the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs.
So the Phillies are in for a big test as the schedule is about to get really tough.
Better get some wins in San Diego.
The Phillies began their current six-game road trip by losing two of three in Arizona.
Offense was a big problem for the Phils in Phoenix as they scored just seven runs in three games and were shut out on four hits on Wednesday. The Phils faced three formidable arms - Zack Godley, Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin - in Arizona. They will not face that caliber of pitching in San Diego. In fact, the pitching matchups dramatically favor the Phillies, who need to come out of Petco Park with a series win.
The Padres will use three rookie starters in the series. They will send Jacob Nix to the mound Friday night for his big-league debut against Zach Eflin. Walker Lockett will make his third big-league start on Saturday night. He will face Aaron Nola. In his first 10 2/3 innings in the majors, Lockett has allowed 17 hits, eight walks and 11 runs. Rookie Joey Lucchesi goes against Jake Arrieta in the series finale Sunday. Lucchesi pitched well - 5 2/3 innings, two earned runs, zero walks, nine Ks - in beating the Cubs his last time out. Arrieta has been on a roll. He has allowed just 14 hits and three earned runs over 21 innings in his last three starts.
Eflin is really looking forward to Friday night's start. He is coming off eight innings of three-run ball in a win over the Marlins. And he will be facing for the first time the team that drafted him in 2012 and traded him away in December 2014. In that trade, Eflin was funneled through the Dodgers and ended up with the Phillies in a Ruben Amaro Jr. deal that sent Jimmy Rollins to Los Angeles. Eflin was actually the first trade of a Phillies' rebuild that is just now bearing fruit.
"It's going to be awesome," Eflin said of facing the Padres. "I've been wanting to throw against them for three years. It's a competitive thing. You want to face the team that traded you away. I'm looking forward to it."
A word on Hector Neris: He is gradually rebuilding his shattered confidence at Triple A. Since being sent to Triple A on July 3, he has pitched in 16 games and allowed just nine hits and three runs in 15 2/3 innings over that span. All the runs came in one outing. He has 26 strikeouts and nine walks.
Neris struggled mightily with the big club in late May and June and needed to go down to work on command of his splitter and get his confidence back.
Turns out he needed to work on something else: The club believes Neris was tipping his pitches through the positioning of his hands and that can spell disaster when a hitter can eliminate 50 percent of a two-pitch pitcher's repertoire. Neris has addressed the flaw. In September, both he and Edubray Ramos will deepen a bullpen that has been stellar since July 1.
Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Rhys Hoskins' major-league debut. In 155 games, he has hit .257 with a .371 on-base percentage and a .504 slugging percentage. He has 35 doubles, 40 homers and 120 RBIs.
That'll play, right?
The Phillies will have a decision to make on prospect Jose Pujols this fall. It is a much different one than they contemplated last fall.
Pujols hit just .194 with a .552 OPS and 150 strikeouts in 325 at-bats at High A Clearwater season. Pujols was eligible for the Rule 5 draft last winter, but the team didn't even think about protecting him on the 40-man roster. Releasing him was more of a consideration.
The Phillies gave Pujols a $540,000 signing bonus in the summer of 2012. That kind of money buys a player a little more time and Pujols has capitalized. The 22-year-old rightfielder from the Dominican Republic has shown signs of maturing as a person and a hitter and put himself back on track with one of the best offensive seasons in the organization. He was leading the Florida State League in hitting (.301) and OPS (.887) and was third in homers (18) and RBIs (58) when he was promoted to Double A Reading last week. He took right to the new level with eight hits, including two homers (one was a grand slam), in his first 18 at-bats.
Pujols is 6-5, 205 pounds. He has a plus arm in right field and power to all fields. At his age, with his tools and the numbers he is putting up this season, it is difficult to imagine the Phillies not protecting him on the 40-man roster this winter and buying some more time to see just what they have. Right now, it looks pretty good.