Opposite dugout: Young talent showing signs of Phillies' improvement

PhilliesLogo.jpgManager: Pete Mackanin (2nd season)

Record: 5-5

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: 1B Ryan Howard (3 HR, 6 RBIs), 3B Maikel Franco (.333/.405/.576 with 2 HR, 5 RBIs), 2B Cesar Hernandez (.294/.314/.382), RHP Jeremy Hellickson (1-0, 11 K, 1.54 ERA), RHP Jeanmar Gomez (4 saves, 1.80 ERA)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (7-12 in 2015)

Pitching probables:

April 15: RHP Joe Ross vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson, 7:05 p.m., MASN
April 16: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Aaron Nola, 7:05 p.m., MASN
April 17: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP Charlie Morton, 1:35 p.m., MASN

Inside the Phillies:

Don't look now, but the Phillies aren't in last place in the National League East. In fact, they're in second and 5-5. OK, I know it's still just the second week of the season, but considering the Phils have finished in last place each of the last two seasons, were 3-7 and in fourth place in the division at this point in the season last year and started this season 0-4, I would say there's been some improvement.

Manager Pete Mackanin has Philadelphia at 5-5 in his first full season at the helm. If you remember, it was the start of a three-game series last year between the Phillies and Nationals on June 26 that then-manager Ryne Sandberg resigned as the skipper, prompting the club to name Mackanin interim manager. Since then, the Phillies have a 41-56 record, and Mackanin was named the full-time manager on Sept. 22.

It's been no secret that the Phillies have been in a rebuilding phase over the past couple of years, which means there's a lot of young talent. Looking at the players who have contributed the most so far this season, there are three 25 and under: second baseman Ceasar Hernandez (25), third baseman Maikel Franco (23) and center fielder Odubel Herrera (24). Franco leads the team with a .333/.405/.576 slash line, Hernandez adds a .294/.314/.382 line and Herrera has knocked in five RBIs.

Veteran first baseman Ryan Howard is off to a slow start at the plate but has a team-high three home runs. Howard has a career slash line of .258/.354/.515 against Nationals pitching with 41 homers and 127 RBIs, each his third-most against a single opponent. However, this is a relatively new Nats rotation and definitely a different bullpen than Howard is used to facing: He has only found success against Blake Treinen (1-for-2) and Yusmerio Petit (3-for-7). Howard is a .266 hitter in his home ballpark of 12 years.

The Phillies acquired right-hander Jeremy Hellickson in a trade with the Diamondbacks in November, bringing his career 3.90 ERA to Philly and to the series opener. In two starts with the Phils already, he has a 1.54 ERA on just a two-run homer from Yoenis Cespedes in his second start. He's only had two career starts against the Nationals in which he is 0-1 with a 6.97 ERA. Righty Aaron Nola, 22, gets the start in Saturday's game. Nola, another young talent, has pitched 14 innings in two starts this season, but gave up four runs while striking out nine in a loss to the Padres his last time out. He faced the Nats twice last September, earning the no-decision in each outing but also a 5.35 ERA. Sunday's finale starter Charlie Morton is another offseason acquisition for the Phillies, coming over in December in a trade with the Pirates. He's 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA in his first two starts with Philly, but is 2-4 with a 7.18 ERA in his career against the Nationals.

The Phillies are only 17-21 against the Nationals over the last two years. But considering the decent start to their season and some sluggish starts by other teams in the division (which includes a three-game series win over the Mets in New York), they are actually in decent shape, however early in the season it might be. With the Braves winless, the Marlins struggling and Mets slow out of the gate, a series win against the 7-1 Nationals may be an extra boost of confidence for the Phillies and could slow down Washington from jumping out to a big early lead over the NL East.

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Nationals feasting on early-season competition

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