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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Back to the scene of the sell-off as Nats travel to face the Philadelphia Phillies

For the first time since their trade deadline sell-off a year ago, the Nats head back to Citizens Bank Park to take on the Phillies...

MLB: Game One-Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If the Miami Marlins could face the Washington Nationals every game this season they would be a bonafide World Series contender — then again, so would a lot of mediocre teams.

With a four-game sweep of the Nationals this weekend, the Marlins moved to a dominant 12-1 against their division foes on the year, as their pitching silenced the Nats’ bats all series.

Miami even did so without their National League Cy Young candidate, Sandy Alcantara, starting a game.

Nothing epitomizes that more than in the final two games of the series when Pablo López, who had been struggling mightily coming into the series, took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, then Braxton Garrett retired 14 straight batters during the series finale.

Next up for the Nationals is a trip to Citizens Bank Park to take on the Philadelphia Phillies, the team’s first trip back there since the series that kicked off the trade deadline sell-off.

The Phillies continue to meander a bit in and around the postseason picture without necessarily taking a chance to cement themselves in the race and go on a big run.

The good news for them is that their offense was showing plenty of signs of the unit that was expected to carry them this season. The bad news is that as things were clicking, they lost their MVP, Bryce Harper, to a broken thumb, ruling him out for the foreseeable future.

Here’s the lowdown from Philadelphia ahead of the three-game midweek set..

The schedule

  • Game One: Tuesday, July 5th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Wednesday, July 6th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Thursday, July 7th, 4:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Probable Pitchers

  • Game One: Paolo Espino (0-1, 2.80 ERA) vs Cristopher Sánchez (0-1, 4.60 ERA)
  • Game Two: Josiah Gray (6-5, 4.22 ERA) vs Aaron Nola (5-5, 3.13 ERA)
  • Game Three: TBD (0-0, -.-- ERA) vs Bailey Falter (0-2, 4.88 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Juan Soto: A lot of the talk in June was around how Soto was slumping at the plate, seeing his average drop down into the .210s for a few games. Quietly though, the young phenom has been starting to heat up again at the plate.

Since the Nats last faced the Phillies, Soto boasts a strong .290/.488/.516 slash line with a home run, four doubles, 12 walks, and just six strikeouts. Some may be hoping for a better batting average, but the on-base percentage and slugging percentage are very much Soto-esque.

And wouldn’t you know it, right as he heats up, he suffers an injury, seemingly tweaking his calf during Sunday’s game against the Marlins. His MRI came back clean, at least, so Soto should be able to return to the lineup at some point during the series in Philadelphia.

Kyle Schwarber: I mean, there’s only one way to go with this when the opposition team has the June NL Player of the Month on their team, right? It’s also a familiar feeling for Schwarber who heated up in June last season for the Nationals, now he’s done it with the Phillies.

Last month, Schwarber slashed a robust .272/.385/.680 with an MLB-leading 12 home runs and a 187 wRC+ that ranked seventh in the majors among qualifiers in June. Ah, the memories.

Unfortunately, after going on a June tear with the Nationals, Schwarber was injured early in July, which was at least part of the reason the team fell apart and ended up falling out of contention so quickly. Hopefully, another injury doesn’t befall him, but the Nats will be hoping they can cool him down a little in this series after his second successive torrid June.

Who’s not?

Nelson Cruz: For a while, it seemed like Cruz was finding his form again at the plate, just in time for the trade deadline. Now, there’s concern that he’s slipping back into a slump again.

In his last 11 games, the Nationals’ DH has a slash line of just .190/.261/.310 with a sole home run and nine RBIs, walking four times and striking out 12.

The trade deadline is now less than a month away, and if the Nationals are going to attempt to get a particularly compelling prospect package for the 42-year-old, he’s going to need to revert to the form he showed in May and June where he had a wRC+ above 130.

Didi Gregorius: In his third year with the Phillies, it’s fair to say that these past two years haven’t gone as well as Gregorius’s first year with the team in 2020. The shortstop also isn’t swinging the bat overly well lately either.

Since the last time these two teams met during Ryan Zimmerman weekend, Gregorius is slashing just .176/.222/.265 in 36 plate appearances while walking twice and striking out six times, good for only a 33 wRC+ in that span.

Gregorius had an injection in his left knee on Friday, per Matt Gelb of The Athletic, something the team hopes will help him get through some of the struggles he’s had this season, particularly his power. But every game Gregorius struggles, the more Bryson Stott plays, and the less likely it is that the Phillies’ top prospect cedes his position as the starter.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Phillies storylines from our friends at The Good Phight...

One more thing to watch

This past weekend, the Nationals made a pretty intriguing roster move ahead of their series with the Marlins, as they optioned catcher Riley Adams to Triple-A and recalled Tres Barrera.

Adams was having a season of mixed results to that point, with hot stretches and cold stretches, giving him a .192/.284/.321 slash line with three home runs and a double in 88 plate appearances as the team’s backup catcher.

Barrera, on the other hand, has been going well at Triple-A, slashing .256/.342/.439 in 51 games for the Rochester Reds Wings, while continuing to display solid defense behind the dish.

Even so, as long as Keibert Ruiz is healthy, manager Dave Martinez is going to give him the bulk of the playing time behind the plate as the catcher of the present and future. So Barrera’s call-up is a straight swap with Adams as the backup catcher.

“I told [Barrera], ‘Hey, look, your role is definitely going to change,” Martinez said on Saturday. “Keibert is our everyday catcher, but you will catch some games, so if I can get you out there twice a week, or maybe three times a week, we’re going to do that to keep you going.’

“He was swinging the bat well, he was doing well catching, and I know by talking to people that pitchers like throwing to him, and that’s nice, and he was throwing some guys out down there, so he feels like he’s ready and we thought that he’d be ready, so I don’t want him sitting here and not playing for 10 days, I want to get him out there and let him play.”

While Barrera is the one in the majors, this still doesn’t likely change the organizational pecking order at catcher, as they still regard Adams highly and see him as the future backup.

There are two things this means with Adams. First, the Nationals want him to get more regular playing time to get back into a groove at the plate, something he clearly wasn’t in at this point. Second, Martinez mentioned that they also want to get Adams some work at first base in the minors, something he has only done once in the majors to this point in his career.

Perhaps it’s a bit of foreshadowing, with Josh Bell firmly in the shop window as a trade candidate, which may create an opening there for Adams to get significant playing time in the majors, as well as giving him a way to get more at-bats in the future despite backing up Ruiz.

Adams’ progress will be worth tracking over the next few weeks, both where he plays in the field and whether his bat heats up ahead of a potential recall after the trade deadline...

Series Preview Trivia

Last series’ trivia question: In 2019, the Nationals also played a wrap-around series against the Marlins, that time it was over Memorial Day weekend. In the first game of that series, the Nationals pulled off a dramatic 12-10 comeback win, but can you remember who started that game for Washington?

Answer: Kyle McGowin

Here’s our trivia question for this series with the Phillies, as we look back on the last time the Nationals made the trip to Citizens Bank Park for a series...

The last time the Nationals played at Citizens Bank Park, they lost three of four in a series that triggered the trade deadline selloff that sent the franchise into a rebuild. Who was it who hit the walk-off grand slam for the Phillies in the series finale?