May 2012

A Grand Occasion

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It’s amazing to think, considering the early season success that Adam LaRoche has enjoyed, that his solo home run in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game was his first at home this year. The Nationals first baseman had already gone deep six times on the road in 2012 – two apiece in Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh – and was already pacing the team in most offensive categories. But he had arguably his best game of the season on Wednesday night and hit a career milestone in style in the process.

That first home run came at a crucial time, extending a 2-1 lead over the visiting Pirates. Xavier Nady followed with a home run of his own, the 100th of his career. But it was LaRoche’s landmark moment later in the game that would resonate as the biggest play in Wednesday night’s affair. After Pittsburgh again trimmed the lead to one in the top of the seventh with a two-run shot, reliever Evan Meek pitched around both Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman in the bottom of the frame, loading the bases for LaRoche with two outs. He took no time to make Meek pay for that decision, lacing the first pitch into the right-field corner to plate all three runners and break the game open for good. The NatsHD vidoeboard flashed the news, that the double marked the 1,000th career hit for the first baseman, an accolade that drew a standing ovation from the healthy midweek crowd of nearly 26,000 on hand.

Adam LaRoche collected his 1,000th career hit and drove in a season-high 4 RBI Wednesday night.

On a team missing two middle of the order bats in Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, there has been a glaring need for someone to step up and fill the offensive void. LaRoche has been more than up to the task, leading the club in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.339), on-base percentage (.429), slugging percentage (.595), home runs (7) and RBI (29), despite sitting for a four-game stretch with an oblique injury. In fact, he was the only player in the National League in the top 10 in batting, doubles (10), home runs, RBI and OPS (1.024) entering play on Thursday.

Let’s not forget about the glove, either. First base is not a position usually associated with defense – often it is only noticed when the player is saving his teammates from an error, by picking an errant throw out of the dirt. While the Reds’ Joey Votto may be well positioned as the incumbent to stake claim to his second consecutive Gold Glove at the position this year, LaRoche’s diligent work should not go without consideration. He has handled nearly everything slung, rocketed and skipped his way by the rest of the infield, a skill magnified by the close games the Nationals have become accustomed to playing.

A couple of weeks ago, we floated out the suggestion on Twitter that LaRoche needed a nickname. One user responded with “AdaMVP,” a suggestion that we thought was befitting for his work to date, as he has clearly been the team’s MVP (at least among position players). But he is making a case as a legitimate MVP contender in the National League with the type of season he has had so far, especially with what it has meant to his team. In the face of an already double-digit list of Disables List stints, one shudders to think where the club might be without LaRoche’s timely hitting. As a result, we have also used “The Rock,” which is more than just a play on words (“LaRoche” translated from French), as it is also befitting both his stalwart performance at the plate and on defense.

Meanwhile, LaRoche continues to terrorize his former team, the Pirates, having gone 7-for-12 with four walks, two doubles, three home runs and eight RBI in four games, with the fifth and final contest between the teams coming up Thursday night in D.C. The Nats can only hope he generates the same kind of production against another one of his former teams, the Atlanta Braves, for the 18 matchups between the division rivals this season. Washington and Atlanta have taken turns leapfrogging one another back and forth atop the National League East by a half-game every night since Sunday.

But that is a discussion for another day. For now, LaRoche is basking in the joy of being healthy and producing for a winning team. The Rock, AdaMVP… call him what you will; he has been huge for the Nationals in 2012.

One for the Ages

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Baseball is a funny game. It has a way of testing its most patient and passionate of fans, yet rewarding them in the end. There is no doubt that Boston’s 2004 World Series title was that much sweeter for Red Sox fans who waited 86 years for it to finally happen, the same way Chicago Cubs fans will finally revel in glory when their curse is broken (someday…maybe).

Bryce Harper rewarded the fans Monday night with his first Major League home run.

Fans flocked to Los Angeles, then to Washington, then to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, all in hopes of watching baseball’s youngest star, Bryce Harper, launch his first home run. They all came away without such a memory. They saw him live up to expectations by crashing into walls, firing opposite field missiles for doubles, even stealing home. But they never got that ultimate payoff.

No, that honor was reserved for the hearty souls who made their way to Nationals Park Monday night in the wake of dismal weather forecasts, who remained in their seats through the light rain into the third inning, when suddenly Harper jumped on a slider that just didn’t slide enough, driving it on a line to the deepest park of the park in dead center field. The hard-hit ball landed softly with a thud on the grass below the batter’s eye, and there it was. Harper hustled around the bases, took his curtain call, as demanded by the fan base that had waited for this moment.

It may not have been the most dramatic blast anyone’s ever seen. But it came in a game the Nats would go on to win, one that would put them back in sole possession of first place in the NL East. That alone made the dinger crucial beyond its obvious historical relevance. For those who love the compelling storylines, though, do not despair. If we’ve learned anything from Harper’s first few weeks in the Major Leagues, it’s that he will provide plenty of exciting moments in the months and years to come.

The Bucs Stopped Here

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In case you hadn’t heard, Stephen Strasburg is still Stephen Strasburg. The 23 year-old right-hander took on the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday night for the first time since his Major League debut back in 2010. Those who remember Strasburg’s first big league start – and really, how could you forget it? – recall his utter dominance, as he struck out 14 batters over 7.0 innings of work. Not everyone remembers just how that outing ended though. The righty fanned the last seven batters he faced, striking out the side in his final two frames.

Fast-forward to Thursday night. After allowing a leadoff single to Jose Tabata in the first, Strasburg got Alex Presley to ground into a 6-4-3 double play, then struck out Andrew McCutchen, who had been the Nationals albatross all series long, to end the inning. From there, he struck out all three batters he faced in the second inning. Ditto in the third. Just like that, he had done it again, tying his own franchise mark with seven consecutive strikeouts.

Strasburg has struck out 27 Pirates in 13 career innings against Pittsburgh.

Even more impressively though, was that it came against these same Pirates. Doing the quick math, if one goes back to his first start, Strasburg struck out 14 of 16 Pittsburgh batters he faced. Those are numbers reserved for Little League contests or video games, not Major League Baseball games.

Meanwhile, Adam LaRoche continued to crush the ball through the chorus of boos that greeted him at every plate appearance in his former home. For the second time in the series, he used the longball to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. Any short-list of early candidates for National League Comeback Player of the Year must include LaRoche, who leads the team in batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.421), slugging (.582), home runs (6) and RBI (21). To put that in perspective, LaRoche owns a higher batting average, slugging percentage and more RBI than Cincinnati first baseman (and 2010 NL MVP) Joey Votto, who the Nats will see for a three-game set beginning tonight.

Washington, which will need to find an offensive lift here or there from the outfielders replacing Jayson Werth during his time on the shelf, found two of them Thursday night. Roger Bernadina flashed his power for the first time this year, dropping a home run to dead center field to open the sixth inning and get the Nationals on the board. Then in the ninth, with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead, Rick Ankiel found the seats in right for a huge insurance run to provide the final 4-2 margin of victory.

Strasburg will deservedly dominate Friday’s headlines, just as he did the Pittsburgh lineup, but the complete team effort was just the type of game a team that had dropped six consecutive road games and three straight overall needed before heading to face a tough opponent in Cincinnati. It was also a nice reminder that as historically good as everyone in the rotation has been, Strasburg will continue to set the bar.

You’re up, Gio.

From the Desk of Mark Lerner: NATITUDE Park

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Hello again Nats fans,

I hope everyone is well and enjoying the season thus far.

I’d like to start with last weekend’s crowds at ‘NATITUDE Park.’ I am very proud to say that over 100,000 were in attendance for the three-game set against the rival Philadelphia Phillies. D.C. baseball fans left little doubt that they take their baseball seriously. Taking two of three from the Phillies is always welcome, but to do so in front of back-to-back-to-back large crowds made the weekend memorable for all.

Bryce Harper has provided an extra spark for the Nats lineup.

Being a part of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball was a thrill for all of us. It was our first ESPN Sunday Night game since Nationals Park opened on March 30, 2008. Everything looked fantastic, as usual, in HD and the entire atmosphere was electric.

How about Bryce’s steal of home on Sunday? Not only won’t that moment be forgotten, it’s likely to be talked about with reverence for years to come. I have had friends tell me this week that the swipe was Bryce’s “arrival” on a national stage.

I know that Jayson Werth and Bo Porter both had a hand in educating Bryce on Cole Hamels’ pickoff tendencies. That was a true team effort. All in all, everything about last weekend went perfectly, Sunday’s result and especially Jayson’s wrist injury notwithstanding.

As I write this, the Nationals are caught in a three-game losing streak. The bats have been a tad flat, but that should be temporary, especially with Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche now back in the lineup. And Mike Rizzo tells me that Michael Morse and his Beast Mode are progressing quite well. We can really use that jolt in the middle of the lineup.

I’d also like to recognize the strong play of LaRoche thus far. He’s leading the club in the Triple Crown categories: a .316 batting average, five homers and 19 RBI. After an injured left shoulder hindered his play last season, I am glad to he is back this season and playing at the levels he expects for himself. Rizzo calls Adam a two-way player. In my mind, he is a three-way player, as there is also no finer gentleman or community advocate in our clubhouse.

Adam’s homer in the ninth inning on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh was the 1,000th home run hit by the Nationals since arriving in Washington in 2005. I remember being at the Nationals first game in Philadelphia and watching Terrmel Sledge launch our first homer at Citizens Bank Park. Why does that initial game in April of 2005 seem like such a long time ago? And at the same time, why does it seem like yesterday? I suppose that is the nature of this game.

Stephen Strasburg returns to the hill for the Nationals Thursday night.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the continued excellence of Steve McCatty’s starting rotation. Collectively, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler are the best rotation in the game right now. I don’t think anyone can objectively argue this point. Consider, in 16 the last games, the rotation has posted 15 quality starts and allowed one run or less 8 times. That’s sustained dominance.

Tonight, Strasburg takes the mound at PNC Park. Here’s to this three-game slide being temporary!

The NHL playoffs, and the Capitals series with the New York Rangers, also have my attention.

Game 6 was really something last night. I attended the game with Drew Storen as my guest. Drew along with many of his teammates, are really enjoying the Caps and their march through the Eastern Conference. Incidentally, Drew’s elbow is feeling fantastic and he is very anxious to get back on the mound.

As for the game, Ovechkin’s early goal really set the stage for loud evening at the Verizon Center. In between the pipes, Braden Holtby played with a grace and poise well beyond his years. He’s been just fantastic.

After further review, I just noted that the Nationals play in Cincinnati on Sat. at 7:05 p.m. And the Caps play Game 7 that same night at Madison Square Garden at 7:30 p.m.

Nearly simultaneous starts, again? That’s two straight weekends! Not that I am counting!

We will start at our homestand Monday night against the San Diego Padres. Please come out and support the team. They are playing great ball and as we all know they are fun to watch.

Let’s go Caps!

Let’s go Nats!

Please enjoy the weekend and Happy Mother’s Day!

Turning The Corners

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Just as the Nationals absorbed the tough news of the loss of Jayson Werth for the next 12 weeks, they received a huge lift. As Werth goes onto the DL, so returns their leader in batting average, RBI, slugging, OPS and co-team leader in home runs. Oh, and they also get Ryan Zimmerman back.

Adam LaRoche has been the Nationals best offensive player so far in 2012.

That’s right, that other guy returning to the Nats lineup is Adam LaRoche, maybe the most overlooked run producer in the National League. In his 24 games played this season, Washington’s first baseman has put up a slash line of .311/.392/.511, slugging four home runs and driving in 17 RBI. Extrapolate those numbers out of 150 games, and you have yourself a 25-home run, 106-RBI hitter in the heart of your lineup before you ever say the names Zimmerman, Morse, Werth or Harper.

LaRoche also provides Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base, much like Zimmerman does across the way. To add both bats back to the lineup – and both gloves back to the defense – makes a huge difference, especially in the wake of losing Werth. Plus, it means we will see the two of them hit together with Bryce Harper in the lineup for the first time, the youngster batting second in front of Zimmerman, then LaRoche in Pittsburgh tonight.

Zimmerman, by the way, is just 27, entering the prime of his career. Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Famer to whom manager Davey Johnson often compares Zimmerman, had the three highest WAR years of his career at ages 31 (7.9), 27 (7.8) and 30 (7.4), after never posting a mark higher than 5.8 before his 27th birthday. For what it’s worth, even Robinson only cleared a 4.6 WAR once the rest of the way in his career once he hit 32.

Zimmerman’s last two fully healthy seasons, he has posted a 6.9 (’09) and a 6.0 (’10). If his career follows Robinson’s, Zimmerman’s best years may well be his next few.

Q&A with Buster Olney

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With Washington baseball stepping into the national spotlight tonight on Sunday Night Baseball, Curly W Live took a moment to catch up with one of baseball’s foremost authorities – ESPN’s Buster Olney. He shared his thoughts on the 2012 Nats, the importance of this weekend’s series, the power of NATITUDE, and of which superstar pitcher tonight’s starter Jordan Zimmermann most reminds him.

Curly W Live: What has stood out to you the most about the Nationals so far?

Buster Olney: Well, the pitching is reaching its potential. I’ll make a lot of stupid picks every year, but I felt kind of smart by picking (the Nationals) to make the playoffs before the year started. I thought the biggest thing was that when you were going to play the Nationals in a series, you were going to have really tough at-bats. And I think that’s what we’ve seen. My favorite stat so far this year is the fact that they’ve allowed fewer homers as a team than Ervin Santana has. They’re the first team since the ’97 Braves to finish the month of April having allowed fewer homers as a team than some individual pitchers. That’s pretty high praise. So I think their pitching has been good. Obviously offensively they’re a work in progress with Bryce Harper coming up and (Ryan) Zimmerman having been out and (Adam) LaRoche having been out, so it will be interesting to see if they get better. And I think this weekend is one of those weekends – and I agree with what (Phillies outfielder) Hunter Pence said – the Nats have a chip on their shoulder.

CWL: How important is this weekend’s series for the team?

Olney, right, chats with Nationals GM Mike Rizzo before Sunday night’s nationally televised game.

BO: I think it’s important. If the Phillies were to get swept in this series, I don’t think it would bother them, because they’ve been there. But I think there’s one thing that has to happen, and I talked to Shane Victorino about this yesterday. Every team that is growing has to learn how to win games against good teams. He talked about how there was a time when the Phillies were the team trying to win those games, and now it’s the Nationals. So I think in that regard, it’s an important series where you can match up. We saw Pittsburgh last year. They were good, they were competing in their division, and then they absolutely hit a wall and fell apart. I think for the Nationals, the question is, ‘How do you get through those grind-it-out parts of the season?’ And I think they’re doing that, because when you look at their run production – I think going through Thursday they were 28th out of 30 teams in runs scored – that tells you that they’re winning close games. They’ve had the walk-off wins. That’s a really good sign.”

CWL: That said, do you expect the Nationals to get a big boost from when Ryan Zimmerman returns?

BO: No question. And Ryan’s one of the best players in baseball. I think when you add him, it’s going to be a plus. At some point, your pitching staff is going to hit a lull, no matter how good it is, every staff has it. So you’ve got to win your share of 8-6 games, and they just need to be more capable of doing it when that time comes.

CWL: How has your impression of the Nationals changed this year?

BO: The energy level is coming, it’s that thing about NATITUDE. And I agree with what Davey Johnson said – once you start winning games, people will start coming into your park. When I covered the Orioles in 1995-’96, they owned that park. And as time went on, it became more of a Red Sox park, more of a Yankee park. And I think as time goes on and these guys are playing well, there will be more attention in this city, they’ll draw more people, and there will be a higher percentage of Nats fans. That’s the thing that jumped out at me: the ratio of Nats to Phillies fans has certainly gone up.

CWL: Let’s talk about the other Zimmerman(n), tonight’s starter, Jordan. What are your thoughts on him?

BO: I think he’s underrated nationally in that people don’t realize quite how good he is. He’s one of my favorite guys to watch. He reminds me so much of Matt Cain of the Giants, in that he’s just a plow-horse. And I say that with 100% respect – his mother grew up on a farm, so I think he’ll take it that way. He’s got that mentality where nothing is going to bother him. He’ll just go out and pitch his game. He’s not going to worry about peripheral stuff, he’s just going to go out and compete. He’s a tough kid. He’s one of my favorite guys to watch pitch. And the more that Nationals succeed, the more people are going to get to know him and understand that he’s comparable to someone like a Matt Cain.

Thanks again to Buster for taking the time to chat before tonight’s series finale. First pitch on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball is at 8:05pm.

NATITUDE Weekend: Day 2

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Two up, two down. The Nationals have done everything the rowdy crowds at Nats Park could have asked for so far this weekend, coming from behind for the second game in a row to beat the rival Phillies, this time by a 7-1 score. Jayson Werth’s game-changing, two-out, three-run laser beam into the visiting bullpen in the fifth inning will be the moment everyone remembers from this contest, but fans would be remiss to overlook the huge performances by Gio Gonzalez, Rick Ankiel and Chad Tracy.

Gio Gonzalez has been nothing short of spectacular at home this year.

The Phillies offense got to Stephen Strasburg for a pair of home runs in Friday night’s game, but had no such luck against Gonzalez on Saturday afternoon. In fact, Philadelphia managed just four hits, scoring once in seven innings against the Nationals left-hander. Gonzalez struck out seven in another sparkling performance and now leads the National League with 41 punchouts on the season. He also improved to 2-0 in three starts at home, where he has allowed just nine base runners in 21.0 innings of work, striking out 22 and posting a 0.43 ERA.

Ankiel, meanwhile, has very quietly caught fire. He turned in his second consecutive three-hit performance to open the series, raising his average to .309 for the season. With the range and arm he possesses in center field – and if the Nationals continue to get this kind of offensive production from him – Ankiel could be a vital piece for the team throughout the 2012 season.

Tracy provided the final bit of support on Saturday, a two-run blast in the bottom of the seventh inning to put the game on ice. It was the second home run of the season and the second in as many days for the lefty, who has found himself starting at first base in the wake of Adam LaRoche’s absence from the lineup the last few games.

Over the first two games of the series, the Nationals have pounded out 29 hits, following up on their 14-hit performance Friday night. They have now out-hit the Phillies 29-11 through the first two games of the series. While the Phillies can claim some injury woes of their own, all the Nationals have accomplished, it should be noted, has happened without the help of their top three offensive threats – Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche.

“They’re short-handed,” said manager Davey Johnson after the game. “We’re short-handed, maybe more than them. This shows that we can compete with them.”

It certainly does. The Nationals will go for the sweep in front of a National audience beginning at 8:05pm on Sunday, as Nationals Park hosts ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for the first time since the park opened in 2008.

“It should be exciting,” said Johnson, of the nationally televised affair. “I don’t have to give any motivational speeches.”

NATITUDE Weekend: Night 1

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It may not have been a perfect Hollywood ending, but it was as good as it gets for the folks in D.C. on Friday night. With the rival Philadelphia Phillies in town for the first of three defining games between the two franchises, the pressure to get a series–opening win, especially with ace Stephen Strasburg on the hill – was enormous. And while things didn’t start all that well, they ended just fine, as they have seemed to do quite often for the Nationals so far this young season.

Washington battled back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 to tie the game at three in the eighth and eventually force extra innings. Wilson Ramos would ultimately play the hero, capping a two-out, 11th-inning rally with a line single up the middle to score Steve Lombardozzi and send the fans into that familiar frenzy to which they have grown accustomed over the season’s first month.

Wilson Ramos sent the Nationals to their Major League-leading fifth walk-off win Friday Night.

Sure, a Bryce Harper game-winner would have really brought the house down. The chants from the crowd, far more boisterous than your average game, would have been heard from across the Anacostia. But it was perhaps more fitting that it came from Ramos, the last man available on Davey Johnson’s bench.

The Phillies are somewhat short-handed, missing their starting first and second basemen in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. But the Nationals are making due without their top two offensive threats from last year, with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse both on the Disabled List. As such, the matchups between these teams become more a test of depth than of star-power, right down to the last name that hasn’t been scratched out yet on the lineup card.

Tonight, that was Ramos. And as so many Nationals have done already, he delivered when his team needed him most. The walk-off Curly W marked Washington’s fifth in just 14 home games, and the fourth to come in extra innings. The Nationals improved to a National League East-best 17-9 on the season and 11-3 at home with the victory.

It will be a quick turnaround to Saturday’s 1:05pm start, but the atmosphere should be electric once again. With the largest anticipated crowd of the series, expect another boisterous day of baseball at Nationals Park.

NATITUDE Photo Contest Winners

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Thanks to those who have been participating in our NATITUDE photo contest. If you’re just reading about this now for the first time, don’t worry – you have two chances to win on Saturday and Sunday too! Here’s how it works:

1. Make sure you are following the Nationals on Twitter

2. Tweet a photo of you Igniting Your NATITUDE, along with something clever, perhaps, and make sure to use the hashtag #NATITUDE

3. Sit back, see what your fellow Nats fans are submitting, and before each game this weekend, we will announce two winners (and retweet them!), based 50% on creativity and 50% on Nationals pride

What do you get for your prize? Why, a limited edition, not-for-sale, Ignite Your NATITUDE T-shirt. Plus, all six winners from throughout the weekend will be entered as finalists for a Roger Bernadina Game-Used Jersey! Shark fans out there, we’re looking at you. For complete rules and details, click here.

Good luck!

FRIDAY WINNERS:

SATURDAY WINNERS:

SUNDAY WINNERS:

GRAND PRIZE WINNER:

Congrats @sharkadina! We know you’ll wear it with pride.

Our Park: Series Preview

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Welcome to NATITUDE Weekend at Our Park. This three-game set will feature the top of the Nationals rotation taking on the Philadelphia Phillies for the first time since Washington completed a four-game road sweep at Citizens Bank Park last September. For a complete guide to everything you need to know, click here. As far as the basics are concerned, the matchups are as follows:

Philadelphia Phillies (13-13, 4th place, -3.5 GB) vs. Washington Nationals (16-9, 1st place, 0.0 GB)

Game 1: Friday, May 4, 7:05pm

Probable Starters: RHP Kyle Kendrick (0-2, 6.59) vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg (2-0, 1.13)

Tickets: Still available

Gio Gonzalez will get his first taste of the Nationals/Phillies rivalry this weekend.

Breakdown: Reigning National League Pitcher of the Month Stephen Strasburg takes to the hill looking to lead the Nationals to their third consecutive win. The right-hander has allowed one or fewer runs in four of his five starts to date. Facing the Nationals lineup will be Kyle Kendrick, normally the Phillies swingman who is filling in the rotation for the injured Cliff Lee. Kendrick has allowed nine runs on 16 hits in 9.0 innings of work in his two starts so far, losing both.

Game 2: Saturday, May 5, 1:05pm

Probable Starters: RHP Vance Worley (2-1, 1.97) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 1.82)

Tickets: Very limited

Breakdown: Gio Gonzalez saw his scoreless innings streak reach 25 before coming to an end in his last start. He shares the team lead and the fifth-highest total in the National League with 34 strikeouts as one of the four Nationals starters with both a sub-2.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP. Vance Worley continues to be a solid find for the Phillies after an impressive campaign in 2011, but has surrendered a team-high four home runs.

Game 3: Sunday, May 6, 8:05pm

Probable Starters: LHP Cole Hamels (3-1, 2.78) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-2, 1.89)

Tickets: Still available

Breakdown: Jordan Zimmermann will toe the rubber for the Nationals in the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball feature. A victim of low run support, the righty has won just one game despite striking out 22 batters against just three walks and posting a team-low 0.84 WHIP. The report on Cole Hamels shows that he is having another solid year, leading the team with 36 strikeouts. He has not been untouchable, though, allowing a run in every start and two or more in four of his five outings.

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