Previewing a weekend series with the Phillies

Hard as this may be to believe, the Nationals' season is nearly half complete. They've now played 72 games, a full 44.4 percent of the regular season.

Just as hard to believe, the Nats have only played three games to date against the Phillies, their geographically closest division rivals. And they haven't even been to Citizens Bank Park yet in 2018 (that will finally happen next weekend.)

So this weekend's head-to-head matchup on South Capitol Street provides the Nationals their first opportunity in a while to see just what the Phillies have cooking right now, and whether this up-and-coming team has what it's going to take to remains in what so far has been a very competitive race for the National League East title.

Entering tonight's series opener, the Nationals sit in second place, three games behind the Braves, only 1/2-game ahead of the Phillies. That makes this series particularly important.

The only matchup of the two clubs to date this season came back in early May, when the Nats took two of three, the final one via a ninth-inning comeback. Philadelphia recovered nicely, winning seven of its next eight games, but it's been a roller coaster ever since.

The Phillies opened this month losing seven of eight games, only to bounce back and win seven of their last 10, four of those against the contending Brewers and Cardinals.

They remain below-average offensively, ranking 10th in the NL in runs, 12th in batting average and 11th in OPS. They are better on the mound, ranking eighth in the league in ERA, but third in strikeouts.

And they won't be going up against the Nationals' best this weekend, at least not from a pitching perspective. Neither Max Scherzer nor Gio Gonzalez is scheduled to pitch this weekend, and Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson remain on the disabled list.

Tanner-Roark-throwing-white-sidebar.jpgSo it'll be Tanner Roark (on the heels of a rough start in Toronto on Sunday) taking the ball for tonight's series opener against right-hander Zach Eflin. Erick Fedde gets another start (one that won't come against the Yankees) on Saturday afternoon, with burgeoning ace Aaron Nola pitching for Philadelphia. And then in Sunday night's nationally televised game, it's Jefry Rodriguez making his second career start and Nick Pivetta, who is facing the organization that three years ago traded him to the Phillies for a guy named Jonathan Papelbon.

We don't know how manager Davey Martinez will set his lineup for these games, all coming against opposing right-handers. Thursday night's 4-2 win over the Orioles might have convinced Martinez to stick with what surprisingly worked: Bryce Harper leading off and Juan Soto hitting cleanup.

"I've got a lot to think about tonight," the manager said minutes after the win.

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