Friday, May 2, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday, May 3, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday, May 4, 3:05 p.m.
Of the unholy trinity of teams Nats fans might believe are rivals, the Braves and Cardinals came after original sinners: the Phillies. It wasn’t just watching them win a World Series in 2008, or getting back to the World Series in 2009. It wasn’t that they routinely handed it to Washington (which they did. 27-9 over those two seasons). It wasn’t frustrating game after game of not getting hits against the likes of Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee.
It was the phans. It was the legion of Phillies fans that seemed to have come from nowhere and begin to throw everything they could in the face of a struggling and still very small fan base. It was April 5, 2010. The single worst Opening Day of my life. 35,000 Phillies fans in Washington making it impossible to remotely enjoy what is our most sacred of days in the baseball calendar. Beer tossing, finger flipping, loud cursing party busses full of Philadelphians taking every opportunity to pretty much take a dump over the 10,000 of us who bothered to come to the game.
It was the nadir of Natstown, hands down. Kids who get bullied sometimes start walking home a different way from school, and so to did lots of Nats fans start avoiding the Phillies series. It is both a bit of genius, and entirely mortifying, that the Nats PR group had to have a “Take Back our Park” series to convince Nats fans to show up to these games. By the time you are invoking Take Back the Night you know you have a fan problem.
Since then, the Nats have been able to punch back on the field against the Phils, and the Phils have lost a little of their luster. It’s a little easier and a lot more fun to go to games agains the Phillies now. (For some reason, many of the phans have gone back to whatever Eagles support group they were in before the Phillies got good). Their pitching remains their strong suit, but their fielding and hitting have taken a nose dive. The last two years the Nats have gone 20-17 against the Phillies and finished ahead of them in the standings as well.
This year, the .500 Phillies may be playing a little above their heads. At 13-13, they are in last place in the NL east, but by most forecasts ought to end up a sub .500 by the end of the year. Indeed, their current Pythagorean record ought to be 11-15. This series is a good place for the Nats to win a couple division games.
How The Nats Win: Of course, that won’t be easy. The Nats are seeing Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, two pitchers who know the Nats well and tend to give them fits. AJ Burnett was an offseason acquisition many folks though the Nats were targeting. Lee and Burnett are pitching well, and while Hamels has a high ERA he has yet to give up a HR (which is why his FIP is lower). He very well could be pitching better than his defense is helping him at this point.
It sounds cliche, but the Nats have got to score early runs on the starting pitchers. They don’t have to score a lot, but they do need to get something on the starter so the Phillies can’t default to their usual bullpen closeout routine. There are bad relievers in the Phillies bullpen, but the Nats are going to have to make them be used. If they get 3 hits and no runs against Lee or Hamels, even Strasburg and Gonzalez can’t pitch well enough to win with zero runs.
Three Phillies To Watch For: Scourge of the Nats, Antagonizer of the Harper, Cole Fake Tough Hamels will be taking the mound after starting the season on the DL. He’s a great left handed pitcher, and the Nats will want to get to him if they can. Chase Utley is almost certainly their best position player. The second baseman is batting .355/.408/.570 (.417 wOBA) with three home runs and is a top notch defender at the position as well. Lastly keep an eye out for Ryan Howard, or his decaying corpse anyway, at first base. After signing a 5 year deal worth $138 million, Howard has played in just 151 games over the last two years. He has 5 home runs already, but also strikeout about 28% of the time and at the age of 35 won’t be getting better. He is signed through 2016, so when the Phillies pass on good players available via free agency you’ll be able to thank the still OK, but not great, first baseman who is eating up a lot of the payroll.