Phillies begin season-defining stretch vs. Nats and Yanks | Extra Innings

The Phillies had the day off Thursday. Call it the calm before the storm. Seven of the team’s next 10 games are against the Washington Nationals (three on the road this weekend and four at home starting next Thursday). The Nats, of course, have won the division each of the last two seasons and remain the favorite to win it again this season even though they trail the Atlanta Braves right now. In between those two series, the Phillies will take on the New York Yankees at Citizens Bank Park and there’s sure to be a large invasion of Noo Yawkers Monday through Wednesday. The Yankees finished off a three-game sweep of Seattle Thursday and have won 16 of their last 20 games. At 50-22, they own the best record in baseball. It would be an understatement to consider this anything less than a season-defining stretch for the Phillies.

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Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper is hitting just .213. He will face the Phillies this weekend in Washington.

The value of Bryce Harper

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez moved Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot Thursday for his team’s series finale against the Baltimore Orioles. He said his intent was simply to kickstart the struggling star. Harper was hitting .173 (27-for-156) in his previous 40 games with a .253 on-base percentage and his overall average was down to .209. He went 1-for-1 with two walks and a sacrifice fly in the Nats’ win Thursday and he still has 19 home runs and 45 RBIs. But he’s only 25 years old and it’s way too soon for his numbers to start looking like Ryan Howard’s during the end days.

The timing, of course, could not be worse for Harper, who is eligible to hit the free-agent market after this season. Earlier this month an anonymous baseball executive told FanRag Sports that he Haper was “overrated, selfish” and a “losing player.” Those words infuriated Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who rushed to Harper’s defense.

“I think it’s just totally unfair on so many levels,” Rizzo told the Washington Post. “First of all, the premise is entirely wrong. Bryce Harper is a winner. He’s been a winner his whole life. He’s been a rookie of the year, five-time all-star, an MVP. He’s won more games since he’s been called up to the big leagues than any player in the major leagues. So how is that a loser?”

Rizzo is absolutely right. The Nats have won four of the last six N.L. East titles with Harper as the offensive trigger man. Every player is entitled to a bad season and Harper still has more than half a year to turn things around. Still, it’s going to be fascinating to see what teams are willing to pay Harper on the free-agent market, especially if he continues to struggle. It will also be fascinating to see if the Phillies are the team willing to pay it given that the team’s .612 OPS from their right fielders is 28th in baseball.

All we can say for sure right now is that the comparisons between Harper and Mike Trout need to stop. One is the greatest player of the 21st century. The other is Bryce Harper.

The rundown

The late, great Roy Halladay died in a tragic airplane crash last year, but he remains with the Phillies in mind and spirit as our Matt Breen explains. Before his death, Halladay was working with Phillies minor-leaguers on the mental part of pitching. The first of his pupils — lefthander Austin Davis — found his way to Philadelphia and made his major-league debut Wednesday.

Before he got his day job as one of the Phillies’ rising pitching prospects at triple-A Lehigh Valley, Cole Irvin was a major-league groundskeeper at Angel Stadium. Our Matt Breen tells Irvin’s cool story.

Alec Bohm, the Phillies’ first-round pick earlier this month, continued his hot streak with a three-hit game down in the Gulf Coast League. He is playing for the Phillies’ Gulf Coast League West team, which blanked the GCL Pirates, 10-0 Thursday.

Important dates

Tonight: Zach Eflin against Tanner Roark in series opener at Washington, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Aaron Nola vs. Erick Fedde, 4:05 p.m.
Nick Pivetta gets ESPN national TV assignment, 8:05 p.m.
Yankees make first Philly appearance since 2009 World Series, 7:05 p.m.

The Phillies would love for Jayson Werth to attend the team’s 10-year reunion of its 2008 World Series title, but the outfielder is trying to make a comeback with Seattle. He is currently on the disabled list at triple-A Tacoma.

Stat of the day

With the Phillies about to play the Nationals, this is as good a time as any to check in on Jayson Werth. The former Phillies outfielder who hit .444 during the team’s 2008 World Series win over Tampa Bay went unsigned this winter after his seven-year contract with the Nationals expired. Werth, 39, signed a minor-league deal with Seattle as the season was starting. He is hitting .206 with four home runs and 19 RBIs and is currently on the disabled list. The Phillies would love for Werth to be part of their 10-year World Series reunion later this year at Citizens Bank Park and it would be nice to see the day when he gets a warm reception from Philadelphia fans again.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @brookob.

Question: Following up on the question asked Wednesday (re: the woeful catching skills of the Phils’ young catchers). Is there any chance that the Phils would bring Carlos Ruiz back to coach the catchers rather than using a roster spot on a veteran catcher?  Or use that roster spot for him? — Jon S.,  via email

Answer: Thanks for the question and for reading Extra Innings Jon. I wrote about this very subject last year when Ruiz was in town with the Seattle Mariners. He told me he would love to return to the organization one day and former Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said the catcher would make a great coach. Ruiz wanted to return to play for another season this year, but he went unsigned. I think the only time we will see him at Citizens Bank Park this year will be at the 2008 team’s 10-year reunion, but the Phillies should definitely consider bringing Ruiz back as an instructor in the future.