Opposite dugout: Phillies aim to keep Nats on toes with top four starters slated to pitch

PhilliesLogo.jpgManager: Ryne Sandberg, second year
Record: 47-61
Last 10 games: 4-6
Who to watch: RF Marlon Byrd (.270/.318/.477, 22 doubles, 20 HR, 60 RBIs); 2B Chase Utley (.289/.355/.436, 26 doubles, 9 HR, 54 RBIs); LHP Cole Hamels (6-5, 2.55 ERA, 1.13 WHIP); LHP Cliff Lee (4-5, 3.78 ERA, 1.41 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats: 3-6, 29 runs scored, 43 runs allowed

Pitching probables
July 31: Cliff Lee vs. Gio Gonzalez, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
Aug. 1: Roberto Hernandez vs. Doug Fister, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Aug. 2: A.J. Burnett vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Aug. 3: Cole Hamels vs. Stephen Strasburg, 1:30 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
Disclaimer: By the time tonight’s game starts, any number of things could be different regarding the Phillies. Their pitching probables for the series could be blown up, their lineup could subtract a few pieces. You never know with a last-place team at the non-waiver trade deadline.

But as constituted, Philadelphia comes to Washington as a team that has been OK at scoring runs and not great at stopping the other team from doing so.

Led by right fielder Marlon Byrd and second baseman Chase Utley, the Phillies are 10th in the National League with 416 runs, 12th with a .241 average and 14th with a .670 OPS while tying for sixth with 89 homers.

The 36-year-old Byrd has had a nice season, leading the club with 20 homers and a .795 OPS while ranking second with 22 doubles and 60 RBIs. Utley isn’t far behind with a .791 OPS, 26 doubles and 54 RBIs.

First baseman Ryan Howard has contributed a team-high 63 RBIs and 16 homers, but those numbers are coupled with a .223 average and a .685 OPS.

Philadelphia has had a good July at the plate with the fourth-most homers and fifth-most runs in the NL this month. But the Phillies have gone just 11-15 in July to sink a season-worst 15 games under .500 before winning four of their last seven.

Pitching is to blame, as Philadelphia’s 4.65 ERA in July is the third-worst mark in the NL. Overall this season, the likes of left-handers Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee (when healthy), and right-hander A.J. Burnett haven’t been able to save the Phillies from a rough year on the mound.

Philadelphia is entrenched in the NL East basement - 12 1/2 games out of first and five games out of fourth - primarily because its pitching staff ranks 13th in the NL with a 4.04 ERA.

The rotation ranks 12th with a 4.07 ERA and the bullpen is 14th with a 3.99 ERA. The starting staff has mostly been weighed down by its fifth starter.

With a four-game series ahead, however, the Nationals and Phils are scheduled for some pretty interesting pitching duels with Philadelphia’s top four all in line to pitch.

Tonight’s opener will match two talented left-handers, as Lee faces Gio Gonzalez. Lee has struggled in two starts since returning from the disabled list, allowing nine runs in 10 2/3 innings for a 7.59 ERA. But overall this season, he has a 3.78 ERA in 12 starts.

The second game pits right-handers Roberto Hernandez and Doug Fister against each other. Hernandez has lowered his season ERA to 4.14 with a strong three-start stretch where he has held opponents to six runs in 20 2/3 innings (2.61 ERA).

Veteran righties Burnett and Jordan Zimmermann meet Saturday. Burnett has alternated gems and duds his last three starts with two of the latter during that stretch. He allowed six runs in five innings on July 18, tossed eight scoreless frames on July 23 and surrendered seven runs in five innings his last start. If the trend continues, the Nats would be in store for good Burnett.

The best match-up of the series comes last as Hamels takes on Stephen Strasburg in Sunday’s finale. Hamels ranks fifth in the NL with a 2.55 ERA, eighth with 133 strikeouts and 10th with a 1.13 WHIP.

But the Phillies haven’t been elite in any area this season. Behind their ace, their pitching has been mediocre, and almost every one of their bats has come with some kind of flaw as they advance in age.

But this is still a team that has the ability to score runs in bunches (the Phils have scored six or more three times in the last six games) and quiet the opposition’s bats (they’ve allowed two or fewer twice in the last four).

So the Nats won’t necessarily be on cruise control as they return from a tough road trip, and will need to avoid playing down to a last-place foe in order to add to a slim 1 1/2-game lead in the NL East.

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