When the baseball schedule was first released, not many expected a late May series between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies to be one with a lot of importance. While many may have expected the series to feature the division leader and the team in the cellar, it is a safe bet that not many expected the Phillies to be in the cellar and the Nationals to be near the top, a few games behind the Atlanta Braves for the division lead.
It may not have been the expected result but nevertheless that is how things have shaken out and that is likely what will be the story of the series.
For the Phillies, this series is almost make or break. They are coming off of a stretch which saw them win seven of their last 11 games, but which also included two back-to-back losses against the struggling, under .500 Boston Red Sox. During this stretch the Phillies got their record above .500 for the first time since their season opening win.
With the Nationals in a bit of a slide, the Braves have taken over first place. Their record is good enough for third best in MLB and as they keep winning, it is going to become harder and harder for the Phillies to catch up to them, especially if they do not manage to win this series against the Nationals.
It won't be easy, but the Phillies have been a much better team in May. Also, with the injuries the Nationals have suffered, the Phils would be primed to take advantage. As the Nationals are a young and up and coming team, winning this series would be a small way that the Phillies could prove to their NL East opponents, that their reign at the top is not yet over.
Cole Hamels has been the best pitcher on the Phillies staff this season and there is no reason to suggest that his success will slow down or stop anytime soon.
Hamels has gotten off to a great start, posting a record of 6-1 and recording 58 strikeouts. He has an ERA under 2.50 and a WHIP a little above 1.00. Most importantly however, might be the fact that the Phils are 7-1 in Hamels eight starts this season, including having won the last seven.
This season, Cole Hamels has been the streak stopper. When the Phils have needed a win, he has been the pitcher to deliver. Against the Nationals, he will start the series finale.
With Hamels on the mound, the Phils offense will be given a bit of a reprieve. They shouldn't have to score more than four runs in order to get the win. That said, offense has been at a premium at certain times this year and even a pitcher as good as Hamels, can be expected to give up one, two or even three runs and still have a quality start.
If the Phillies can score for Hamels, they should win this game as there is no reason to suggest Hamels won't pitch another great game.In fact there is reason to suggest exactly the opposite as Hamels thrives under pressure and with the recent Bryce Harper incident, there is certainly going to be media attention surrounding this game.
Phillies fans won't soon forget "Take Back the Park," and the impact it had on Phils fans attending the early May series in Washington. Also, it is not too far fetched to think that these fans will want payback and the best way to do this is through winning.
Since a budding rivalry is brewing between the Nats and Phillies, the fans will likely be enthusiastic and involved from the very first pitch. Phillies fans, who seem to wear their passion and heart on their sleeves, will especially be excited to get a chance to prove to the Nationals fanbase why Citizen's Bank Park doesn't need an initiative to keep out opposing teams fans.
As most games go however, a lack of run scoring and offensive production early, will diminish the advantage the Phils gain from their home town crowd. By starting off strong and scoring runs early and often, the Phils will keep their crowd in it, which will work to frustrate the Nats hitters.
Home field advantage has not exactly been beneficial to the Phils this season, but this series will be the team's chance to really have an enlivened and hyped up crowd ready to cheer. Taking advantage of this could go a long way to a Phils sweep.
Carlos Ruiz has been nothing short of amazing for the Phillies this year. His offense has been inspired and his game calling as well as defense has been stellar as usual. With the Phils offensive struggles, Ruiz has been a clear bright spot.
Moving from the seventh and eighth spot, Ruiz now has the job of protecting Hunter Pence from the fifth hole. Since Manuel first moved Ruiz to this spot, Pence has gotten better pitches and his power numbers have increased. Ruiz also has benefited as he has gotten and converted on most RBI chances he has had.
Ruiz may not be the prototypical five-hole hitter, but this season for the Phillies having him bat that spot in the lineup has truly paid off. Against the Nationals, Ruiz is likely to continue batting fifth, giving the Phils their best shot at scoring runs.
Going forward, the Ruiz's continued offensive contribution will be huge for the Phils and their playoff chances. It is not a heart of the order that features Utley and Howard, but nevertheless, the tandem of Ruiz and Pence will have to record RBIs in this series if the Phillies hope to win or even sweep the Nationals.
Bryce Harper is a catalyst, there is no doubt about it. When he is on base, pitchers are forced to work harder because as he has shown, he is not afraid to take off and run.
When Harper gets on base, the entire dynamic of an inning is changed, especially if he is on with nobody out. For a kid of just 19, Harper has shown a great knowledge of the game and a maturation process that has put him ahead of most rookies. He also has a cockiness to his game that has helped him tremendously. He is not afraid to take risks because when he does, he has the confidence that they will pay off.
Harper is, simply put, a great baseball player. When he gets on base, the Nationals offense is that much better and often scores more runs. As I said, he is a catalyst and the best way to put a halt to the Nats run scoring is to keep Harper off base.
Before the Phillies and Nationals opened up their first season series in early May, Nationals players Mike Morse and Ryan Zimmerman were already on the DL. As the second series begins, the Nationals, who did get Zimmerman back, will be without Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos as well.
The Phillies, although still without the services of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, are in a much better place injury-wise than the Nationals. With a handful of players receiving regular starts for the Phils, the team's depth has helped them to overcome these injuries and survive without the two all-stars in the lineup.
With Werth and Ramos out for the foreseeable future, the Nats have been forced to seek help from their minor leagues. Spending the majority of time catching has been Jesus Flores and filling in for Werth and Morse is the combination of Tyler Moore and Xavier Nady, both of whom have been downgrades.
For the Phillies, they will be facing a Nationals team that is affected by a lot of injuries to key players. As a result, the Phils have a better chance to beat this Nats team than the one they faced in early May. Also, the Phillies have been playing much better baseball as of late. With the Nats hampered by injuries, the Phillies need to take advantage of the less offensively capable team they will be facing and ride that to a series sweep.
The Phillies don't hit many home runs and the Nationals have not given up many home runs this season. It is likely then that the way to beat this team will play right into what has been Philadelphia's strength this season and that is hitting singles.
Burned in the past this season by a power drought, the Phillies have finally begun to play a version of small ball that is likely as close to the actual thing that a Charlie Manuel team will ever get. With Juan Pierre able to lay down bunt singles and guys like Freddy Galvis, Pete Orr and John Mayberry Jr with decent speed on the base paths, Philly has found a way to manufacture runs without the long ball.
The problem for the Phillies however is that they are still struggling to score runs and get key hits at the right times. With a poor series against the Red Sox in terms of runners left on base and runners stranded in scoring position with less than two outs, the Phillies inability to perfect situational hitting has hurt them this season.
If they want to beat the Nationals, the Phillies will have to continue to have their top of the order guys get on base and have them be disruptive on the base paths. If this happens, guys like Hunter Pence and Carlos Ruiz will likely get better pitches and will have better opportunities to get the runners home.
There may not be a "bridge to Lidge," as there was in 2008, but the 2012 victory has its own formula and it is a simple one: get the ball into Papelbon's hands.
if the Phillies manage to go into the top of the ninth inning with a lead, there is a pretty good chance that they will come away with a victory as their closer has been nothing short of perfect this season.
Papelbon, who was coming off of a season in which he choked, giving up back-to-back doubles to keep the Red Sox out of the postseason, has not carried any of that rust into 2012. So far this season the man known as Cinco-Ocho has not blown a save, getting out to a 12-12 mark which is best in the National League. Although he did have a game in which he gave up a few runs, when in a save situation, Papelbon has been lights out and nearly un-hittable.