Phillies transforming on the fly, but still ahead of Nationals

PHILADELPHIA - Jayson Werth returned to Citizens Bank Park as a visitor on Tuesday night, wearing a Nationals uniform in a park where he made his career. The scene touched all the emotions you’d expect in what might be the majors’ most raucous home stadium - there were standing ovations, boos, signs both positive and negative, chants both amusing and unprintable.

“A lot of familiar faces out there,” Werth said. “I feel pretty comfortable out there. I’ve played a few games out there. It was a lot of fun. Obviously the atmosphere is great. Packed house. Passionate fans. This is a very fun place to play, whether you’re the home team or the visiting team. There’s not too many places that are like this.”

But the reason Werth came back in a Nationals uniform, instead of carrying on his career with the Phillies, has something to do with the way the Phillies have reinvented themselves this year. They took the money they could have used to re-sign the right fielder and spent it on Rangers starter Cliff Lee, giving themselves possibly the most formidable rotation in the game.

The Nationals have seen the Phillies’ transformation all too well this season. Roy Halladay threw a complete game in his first start against them this year. So did Cliff Lee the next night. And on Tuesday, Cole Hamels became the latest pitcher to do it.

He allowed just five hits in nine innings, helping the Phillies to a 4-1 win over the Nationals before 45,695. And Werth’s uniform switch notwithstanding, the gap between the two teams looked as big as ever on Tuesday.

In the past, the Phillies have beaten the Nationals by bludgeoning them to death with the NL’s best lineup. They didn’t, and couldn’t, do that on Tuesday - they had Ben Francisco and Pete Orr in their order, not Werth and Chase Utley.

Instead, they lulled them to sleep, with Hamels throwing 79 strikes in 108 pitches and using a changeup so sublime, the Nationals’ righty-heavy lineup couldn’t do much.

“He’s always been a very good solid pitcher,” catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. “Of course, when you go through the years, you make adjustments and you become a better pitcher. I think he showed it today. He has good pitchers there that I guess he’s talking to and learning from them. So far, he’s doing good. He pitched great today.”

Said Werth: “That was the first time I’ve ever seen Cole. He located well. He pitched good. Being the first time I’ve faced him, I was impressed. He’s got good stuff. I figured he would. He pitched well.”

It’s fascinating to watch the Phillies morph after they’ve spent so long building a muscular lineup for their hitter-friendly ballpark. They’re still missing Utley because of a knee injury, but they entered Tuesday eighth in the NL in runs, ninth in homers and 10th in slugging percentage. And yet, they’ve got the league’s best record because of a pitching staff that can throw more dominant starters than almost any in the game.

The Nationals still lack that pitcher capable of shutting down a game - they haven’t had it since Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow here last August, ending what most Nationals people believe would have been his best start, even better than his 14-strikeout debut. That day, even Phillies hitters were telling each other, “Not today, boys,” according to a Nationals official.

The team is more excited than ever about its supply of young pitchers, and there’s good reason to be. Brad Peacock struck out eight at Double-A Harrisburg tonight, and leads the Eastern League with a 1.16 ERA. His teammate, Brad Meyers, has struck out 27 batters in five games this year without a walk.

Sammy Solis, the Nationals’ second-round pick last year, is close to starting with a minor league team after rehabbing a groin injury, and could jump to Single-A Potomac. Tom Milone and Ross Detwiler are at Triple-A Syracuse, and the Nationals have high hopes for Danny Rosenbaum at Potomac. They spent big money in last year’s draft on A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray. They’ve got several pitchers they like at the top of their minor league system, and several more who are about to push older prospects out of the way. And in a draft loaded with the kinds of college pitchers general manager Mike Rizzo loves, they have three picks in the top 33.

But the Nationals’ ideal rotation isn’t here yet. They’re getting by with pitchers like Livan Hernandez gamely keeping them alive - he sidestepped haymakers all night and lasted 6 1/3 innings despite allowing 10 hits - but they don’t have aces who can make wins a foregone conclusion.

They might once Strasburg returns and Jordan Zimmermann matures, and they can either round out their staff with prospects or use them to trade for a proven starter. For now, though, they’re doing their best to stay afloat with a battered lineup and an overachieving staff.

The Phillies might not have the bats, at least at the moment, to pound teams into submission. But they have something much more valuable: They have the pitching staff the Nationals want.

“It’s a good park to hit in,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “But when the pitching is as good as what they can put out there, it’s going to be a challenge.”