By Sam Bush
When the 2019 schedule was released last winter, this week’s Phils-Nats series in DC looked like the cherry on top.
It had the promise to decide the winner on the NL East and playoff seeding, at the very least.
Then, the season began, the Phils topped out in late May, the Braves took control of the division and the Nats caught fire.
So, this series is virtually meaningless.
Zach Eflin is 2-1 with a 2.23 ERA in six starts since rejoining the Phillies’ rotation. Last time out, he allowed an unearned run in seven innings of a win against the Braves.
Eflin came into that game 0-3 with an 11.57 ERA in three previous starts against Atlanta this season and watched his defense commit three errors in his first six batters, but persevered.
“That was the toughest from a mental standpoint start from a pitcher that we’ve gotten all season long,” manager Gabe Kapler told MLB.com. “Quite simply, we didn’t make plays behind him early on. He continued to get ground ball after ground ball. Calls were not going his way. … He just kind of had a resiliency about him throughout this game.”
Eflin is 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA in three starts against the Nationals this season. In six career starts against them, he is 3-2 with a 3.41 ERA.
The Phils’ playoff hopes took a hit as the Indians broke open a close game with a six-run seventh inning to take two of three from the Phillies.
After yesterday’ 5-3 loss to the Miami Marlins, the Nationals (85-69) are one percentage point ahead of the streaking Milwaukee Brewers (86-70) for the top wild-card spot.
Milwaukee has won 15 of its last 17 games and would host the wild-card game if the teams end up tied based on winning the season series from Washington 4-2.
The fading Cubs are four games back, and the Mets are 4 1/2 games behind, meaning Washington needs to go 4-4 this week to ensure a berth in the wild-card game even if the Cubs win out.
The Phillies (79-75) are six games out with eight games remaining after being routed by the Cleveland Indians 10-1 last night.
The Nationals’ bullpen blew a late two-run lead against the Marlins as Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey combined to give up four runs and send Washington to just its fourth loss in 19 games versus Miami this season.
“There’s no turning back now,” Strickland told MASN.com. “This is it, and this is critical. Every game’s critical. This one was. It’s a tough loss, for sure. As a reliever mindset in general, you have to forget and figure out what to get better on. Have to move forward and get ready for tomorrow. There’s no more off-days. We’ve got to be ready to go.”
Washington left-hander Patrick Corbin (13-7, 3.10 ERA) pitches the series opener against right-hander Zack Eflin (9-12, 4.00).
Corbin has won three of his last four outings. In his last start, he allowed two unearned runs on five hits over six innings of a win against the Cardinals, striking out 11 and walking four.
“I felt really good all night. I had good fastball command on both sides of the plate, and my slider was really good,” Corbin told reporters. “They came out and they’re pretty aggressive, so I was able to use that pitch a little bit more.”
Corbin is 1-0 with a 3.32 ERA in three starts against the Phillies this season, and the Nationals have won all three games. In eight career starts against the Phillies, he is 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA.