Heading into tonight’s series against the Washington Nationals (16-12) the Phillies (13-13) are tied with Miami for 4th place in the NL East. Only 3.5 games separate the division leading Braves from the Phils and Fish, who are both sitting at .500. In our last article we told you the Braves couldn’t sustain the pace they were on, having won 17 of their first 24. After a three-game sweep to then last place Miami by a combined score of 23-7, the Braves are indeed coming back to earth. The NL East is up for grabs this year, and if the Phils can solve a couple issues that have haunted them so far in this young season they should be right in the thick of things.
The scheduled off days and rain out this week have allowed the Phils to reset their rotation heading into the weekend series. The Phils will throw their top three pitchers, Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett and Cole Hamels against the Nats. Tonight’s game will feature both team’s opening day starters, Stephen Strasburg (2-2, 4.24 ERA) of the Nats against Cliff Lee (3-2, 3.29 ERA). Strasburg has true ace material, but despite putting up good numbers he’s no ace in my opinion. I’m aware Strasburg leads the league in SO/9 with 14.0 and that he has a better than respectable 4.42 SO/BB ratio. So why do I say Strasburg isn’t an ace? He can’t or won’t pitch deep into games, unlike tonight’s opponent, Cliff Lee. In Strasburg’s last two seasons he’s been healthy enough to start 58 games, but doesn’t last 6 innings on average. Same thing this year; six starts and 34 IP. In 85 career starts Strasburg has gone the distance just once and has never pitched more than 183 innings in a season. Until Strasburg can start taking his team deeper into games I can’t see giving him ace status.
In Strasburgs’s last three games he’s 1-1 with a no decision. His 4.24 ERA in the last three games matches his season ERA. Despite the outstanding stuff Strasburg throws teams still manage to hit him. I don’t see enough of him to know if he can’t bear down against every batter or what the exact problem is, but opponents have slashed .299/.356/.418 off Strassburg these last three games. In six career starts against the Phils Strasburg is 2-1 with a 2.65 ERA. Last year, when the Phils struggled against most pitchers, Strasburg was 2-0 with a 0.39 ERA. He pitched 23 innings in his three starts against last years impotent Phils. We’ll see if the 2014 Phils will fare better starting tonight.
Like Strasburg, Cliff Lee is also 1-1 with a no decision in his last three starts. Unlike Strasburg, Lee’s ERA in those games is 1.57. Lee is a true ace and recognized by most writers and publications as one of the 10 best starting pitchers in the game today. Lee is a gamer who is 6th in IP and 7th in K’s in the NL, but numbers alone don’t measure the effectiveness or heart Lee shows every time he takes the mound. The one loss in his last 3 starts was a complete game 1-0 loss to the Braves where Lee struck out 13. In the last six years Lee has pitched an average of 222 innings per seasons, with 211 being the lowest amount he’s pitched. Who wins tonight, the ace or the wannabe ace? I don’t know. The Phils inconsistent hitting guarantees nothing.
Game two features the Nats Tanner Roark (2-0, 2.76 ERA) against the Phils A.J. Burnett (1-1, 2.15). Roark, the 27 year old righty is only in his 2nd season, having made just 10 career starts entering Saturday night’s game against the Phils. Last season Roark pitched in 14 games, starting five. This year he made the starting staff out of Spring Training and has pitched well. In his last three starts Roark is 1-0 with 2 no decisions, but hasn’t allowed a run in his last two starts. He’s gone 18.1 innings since surrendering three runs to the Marlins in the 4th inning of their April 16th game. Against the Phils Roark pitched 2 innings of no hit, no run ball for a W last year, but has yet to face them as a starter.
Since being diagnosed with a hernia A.J. Burnett has been nothing short of fantastic. His last three starts he’s averaged over 7 innings per with an ERA of 0.83 for his efforts. Two of Burnett’s last three starts have been WG’s (WG = winnable game. A winnable game is defined as pitching a minimum of 7 innings and allowing a maximum of two ER’s). In 17 games, including 16 starts against the Nats Burnett is 8-3 with an ERA of 3.08.More recently, pitching as a Pirate last year Burnett made two starts against the Nats. He was 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA.
In Sunday’ s series finale the Phils will face former farmhand Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 3.25 ERA). Gonzalez has handled the Phils quite well in his major league career, sporting a 5-2 record with a 2.66 ERA in eight starts. Looking at Gonzalez last three starts he’s 1-0 with two no decisions and an ERA of 3.00. Trading Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia was the worst move Pat Gillick made as the Phils GM. Even the great ones make the occasional bad move, and trading two up and coming pitchers for Freddy Garcia prior to the 2007 season was certainly a bad trade all the way around.
Taking the hill for the Phils Sunday afternoon will be Cole Hamels (0-2, 6.75 ERA). Hamels lost his last outing pitching on a cold, rainy Tuesday night against the surprising NY Mets. Unlike the Mets, who have beat up on Cole Hamels his entire career, the reverse is true with regards to the Nats. Lifetime Hamels is 15-6 with a 2.58 ERA in 28 starts against the Nats. Go figure.
Coming into this series the Phils have only played seven division games to date. Winning divisional games will probably determine the outcome of the NL East this year. The Nats look to be equipped to take the division with a starting five of Strasburg, Zimmerman, Gonzalez, Fister (whose yet to make a start this year) and Roark. The offense looks to be solid as well. The Nats enter this series 3rd in runs scored and batting average, while coming in at number two in slugging percentage. Maybe this is the year the Nats put all this talent together and make it past the NLDS for the first time in their careers.
As for the Phils, their problems in April were easily identifiable. The offense needs more consistency and hitting from the bottom of the order (to say Asche and Brown have been disappointing to date would be an understatement). The bullpen was the other glaring weakness. They need to hold the leads given to them by the starters and get the ball to Jonathan Papelbon with a lead more often. The Phils bullpen ranks dead last in ERA in the NL at 4.84. Mike Adams recent comeback offers some hope. Ethan Martin, who is expected back this month offers additional hope.
At the onset of the season I wasn’t expecting too much from the Phils. I still see a flawed team, but I also see a team with one of best top of the rotations in baseball. If Sandberg can manage to get Dom Brown swinging with some authority and leave Cody Asche in the lineup long enough that he’s not looking over his shoulder every time he has an o-fer, the offense should improve. I don’t think the bullpen has anywhere to go but up.
The Phils have a lot of division games to play and those games will go a long way in determining who will win the NL East. Considering it’s only May 2nd this is a pretty big series. It’s important the Phils don’t fall out of the race early and taking two of three from the 2nd place Nats will get the month of May heading in the right direction.