Here come the Phillies

brushback_harperBecause of the quirks of this season’s scheduling, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals will finally meet on the field this weekend, near the end of the second month of the season. The Nationals enter Friday’s game 4.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings and one game ahead of the Phillies.

After a rough 10-game West Coast swing, the Nationals could use a strong showing against their fiercest division rival to boost their position. Before the season, several observers tabbed the Phillies as a dark-horse NL East contender. The Phillies, just like the Nationals, however, have managed to float around .500 despite a rash of injuries or ineffective performances. The Phillies are 23-24 with a negative-31 run differential.

The Phillies have also suffered from an impotent offense. They are averaging 3.55 runs per game, better only than the Dodgers (3.47), Nationals (3.38) and Marlins (2.66). They have a combined OPS of .690, fifth worst in the majors. Only one Phillies regular has an OPS over .800 and that’s resurgent Chase Utley, who was enjoying a strong bounce-back season at 34 until he landed on the disabled list on Thursday with an oblique strain.

Ryan Howard, who is in the second season of a five-year, $125-million contract that looks like a misstep in hindsight, is hitting .263/.297/.444 with six homers and has dealt with a balky knee. Ben Revere, the center fielder the Phillies acquired from the Twins, has missed time because of minor injuries and ineffectiveness, and has .299 on-base percentage. Michael Young, the 36-year-old the Phillies hoped would solve their third base issues, has a .754 OPS with one homer. Jimmy Rollins has a .705 OPS. Catcher Carlos Ruiz, who returned from a 25-game suspension for a banned amphetamine, strained his hamstring in his 16th game back. Yet again age has caught up with the Phillies, who have the sixth-oldest roster in baseball.

The Phillies have been propped up somewhat by their starting pitching. The rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA, 15th in the majors, but the bullpen’s 4.63 ERA is fifth worst. The bullpen has allowed a major-league-leading 46 percent (26 of 56) of inherited runners to score, also an issue last season.

After looking like a shell of his former self, Roy Halladay is out with major shoulder surgery and the Phillies sound almost too optimistic he could return later this season. Cliff Lee has been strong again, off to a 5-2 start with a 2.48 ERA and is yet again the subject of trade talk. Left-hander Cole Hamels, whom the Nationals face on Sunday, is off to a 1-7 start with a 4.45 ERA. Old friend John Lannan has been out since late April with a strained knee and could be back next month. Fill-ins Tyler Cloyd and Jonathan Pettibone have been serviceable, but the Phillies are in the same situation as last season. When the Phillies suffered from injuries last season, their lack of quality depth was exposed.

When the teams take the field against each other for the first time on Friday, the luster of past meetings may be missing. Both have stumbled to start the season, with the Phillies seemingly heading soon towards a crossroads, a team that might soon further sell off its parts if it sinks deeper. When both teams faced off in a rare spring-training meeting, they engaged in a playful skirmish, another moment in their heated history. There seems to be little reason for that same spark this time around.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals return from a hectic West Coast road trip still looking to improve, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Brandon Miller provides power in the middle of Hagerstown’s lineup

The struggles of the Nationals bullpen

Bryce Harper conquers the wall, at least for one day

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 8, Columbus 7: Matt Torra started and allowed three runs over four innings. Tanner Roark tossed two scoreless innings in relief. Erik Davis blew the save but notched the win. Left-hander Xavier Cedeno earned his first save. Micah Owings went 2 for 6, drove in five and smashed his fifth homer. Chris Marrero drove in two and is hitting .300.  Chris Rahl went 2 for 5 with a homer.

Erie 8, Harrisburg 6: Taylor Jordan started but lasted only one inning. Anthony Rendon went 0 for 3 with two walks and is hitting .330. Josh Johnson went 2 for 4 with three RBI. Jerad Head and Sean Nicol drove in a run each. Sandy Leon scored two runs.

Frederick 7, Potomac 4: A.J. Cole started and allowed five runs on seven hits over five innings. He has a 1-2 record with a 4.98 ERA. Michael Taylor, Cutter Dykstra, Adrian Nieto and Caleb Ramsey each went 2 for 4.

Hagerstown 7, Lexington 0: Ivan Pineyro started and allowed only three hits over seven innings, walked two and struck out six. Tony Renda went 3 for 5. Brandon Miller and Will Piwnica-Worms each finished 2 for 4.

Also on Nationals Journal

Brandon Miller provides power in the middle of Hagerstown's lineup