Phillies Phoes of the Week Part II: Hail to the Chief

Washington Nationals

It may be a bit premature to hand over the NL East crown to the Nationals, but it certainly won’t be the Phillies on top for the 6th straight year. The Nats have won 8 of 10 and hold a commanding 4 game lead over the red hot Braves. The formula is eerily similar to the Phillies of the past two years: pitching and defense.

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"Move over Brian Wilson's beard, Tyler Clippards specs are the new closer look of choice" Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Credit should go where credit is due though, and this pitching staff is deserves some accolades. Stephen Strasburg has been killing it on the mound with an ERA+ of 144 and an 11.6 SO/9 ratio, but the dominance doesn’t end there. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman have been just as good, if not better at times. This dynamic trio has propelled the Nats to the top of the leader-board in team ERA (3.26) and show no signs of letting up (besides GM Mike Rizzo pulling in the reins on Strasburg). The MVP of the whole group might be Tyler Clippard’s Rex Specs. Those guys strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters in the ninth inning, helping the hard-throwing righty to 20 saves on the year.

When Last We Met: The Nats and Phils haven’t played since the end of May, which dawned the beginning of Tyler Clippard’s ascension to the closer’s role. The Natties took 2 of 3 from the Phightins, getting bested in the finale by Cole Hamels. Gio Gonzalez continued to remind the Phillies that he should never have left the club, throwing 6 innings of shutout ball in the opener. But this was all before the glorious return of Utley and Howard! This team has some tricks still up it’s sleeve…right?

Series Predictions: 1) Despite all the rumors and rumblings Cliff Lee takes the hill in the opener for the Phils. He then demands Ruben Amaro hand deliver his bi-weekly check personally as punishment for dangling him as trade bait.

"Hey Rich, they won't trade me AGAIN will they?" Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

2) Lee stays, but the rest of the Phils roster is missing some familiar faces. The team watches Shane Victorino’s Hawaii 5-0 episode as a tribute to remember their former teammate.

3) The Phillies actually play some games! Fans slowly come out of the Wizard-of-Oz-like twister that was the MLB trade deadline to actually watch baseball.

Fansided Perspective: District on Deck editor Aaron Somer’s breaks down all the latest with the divison leading Nationals. *I’ll never get used to writing that.

1) Despite the dramatic loss to the Braves last weekend the Nats are still 4.5 games ahead. Has the reality of making the playoffs sunk in with the fan base yet?

I think it’s starting to, yes. This team is doing some pretty special things right now. Consider this, when the Nationals reached the 20-games-over-.500 mark this past weekend, it marked the first time in Nationals history that the reached such a level. The last time the franchise reached such a level was 1994, when the Expos were cruising on their way to winning the NL East before the season was called by the players’ strike. It was the first time since 1945 that a Washington-based team was so far over .500. It’s pretty remarkable.

But this team and this fanbase are aware that the job isn’t quite done yet. There are still two more months in the regular season and there is still time for just about anything to happen. No, I’m not saying there’s a chance the Phillies will claw back (sorry guys), but it’s too early to say that anything is certain at this point in time. The Braves could go on a two week run and climb over the Nationals in the division. With battles going on in the Central (between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) and West (San Francisco and Los Angeles) divisions as well there’s not even a certainty that the second place team in the East will reach the playoffs. Even adding in a second wild card, again there’s no certainty. So, while I’d love to sit here the day before the July Trade Deadline and state that Washington is a genuine World Series contender, I just think that’d be premature.

People are certainly starting to notice how well this team is playing, however. I don’t live directly in the D.C. area, so it’s tough to speak first hand on how the local market has taken to their winning ways, but attendance is up on the 2012 season in Washington. It’s continuing to trend upwards as the season progresses. And that isn’t just from Philly fans making the two hour drive with the hopes of seeing a quality baseball team.

2) Everyone knew Bryce Harper was going to be a great ballplayer, but has he exceeded expectations for a 19-year old?

Absolutely. I don’t think anyone saw this from Harper. Or from Mike Trout, for that matter, but that’s another discussion altogether.

We certainly knew that Harper was going to be a special ball player. We knew he’d also have a big impact on this team once he arrived. Naturally that all came much quicker than expected. Sure, Harper has cooled from a hot start and is batting .261/.338/.430 on the year, through 352 plate appearances. He’s got 9 HR and 29 RBI and has added 13 stolen bases. He’s been solid defensively, settled into the second spot in the lineup, and has handled the pressures of playing professional baseball with maturity. Remember, he’s still just 19. This kid is going to be fun to watch in the coming years as he continues to develop as a player.

3) What position do the Nats need to address the most before the deadline?

The injury to Ian Desmond certainly hurts, particularly considering how well he’s played this year. The problem, however, is the there is limited organizational depth at the two middle infield positions – a weakness that could be exposed by the loss of Desmond. The problem is, however, the current options are all under team control for the foreseeable future so it’s tough to determine what Washington will do to address the situation because it seems evident that Mike Rizzo doesn’t believe in parting with prospects for rental players. Washington might end up making a move, but I don’t know that anything is certain at this point. There just isn’t a lot out there that would make a significant difference for two months, either filling in for Desmond or in a bench role upon his return.

Beyond that I don’t see a significant move for this team. Their two biggest acquisitions may prove to be players coming back from injury. Drew Storen returned to the bullpen last week after missing the first half of the season with bone spurs in his elbow that were discovered during Spring Training. So right there is our extra bullpen arm. Then there’s Jayson Werth, who’s potentially going to return either Tuesday or Wednesday this week from his gruesome wrist injury that he suffered against the Phillies. Plugging him back into the outfield and starting lineup may provide the extra offensive boost this team could us. With those players coming back right around the deadline, Washington’s in a good spot heading into the final two months.

 

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