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Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers @ Philadelphia Phillies

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A star-studded Phillies team is off to a slow start, but Bryce Harper is back to playing like an MVP

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Despite having 17 players on the Injured List, the Milwaukee Brewers somehow took 3 of 4 from the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend and now head back out on the road this week, where they’ve been especially impressive with a 9-3 start to the year.

Next up is a 7-game trip that starts with a 4-game set against the Phillies tonight in Philadelphia. The Phillies have been somewhat disappointing thus far, entering the week at 13-15, although that’s still only 1 game back of the division lead in the competitive NL East.

The Lineup

Philly’s lineup is packed with star power, but has struggled to consistently put runs on the board this year, actually scoring fewer runs than the Brewers through both teams’ first 28 games (the Brewers rank 21st in the majors with 113 runs scored, the Phils rank 23rd with 108). Still, despite the slow start, this series will be played in a bandbox, and there are plenty of guys who can do damage if the Brewers’ pitching starts to slip.

Bryce Harper is one of the few meeting — or exceeding — expectations early, hitting .317/.446/.598 with 6 home runs and 5 doubles in 24 games, putting up a 187 OPS+. He missed a few games last week after getting hit in the face by a 97 mph fastball from the Cardinals’ Genesis Cabrera, but returned to the lineup Sunday night. J.T. Realmuto has also been earning his keep to start the year, putting up a .312/.407/.481 line and comes into this week tied with Harper for the team lead in WAR. Rhys Hoskins has struggled to hit consistently so far with a .241/.286/.527 line, but as you can tell from the slugging percentage, when he does hit — they stay hit. He’s racked up a team-leading 8 home runs and 8 doubles through the first month of games.

The rest of the lineup, though, has been somewhat disappointing in the last few weeks. Didi Gregorious will come into the week with a .648 OPS and 78 OPS+, hitting just .241/.275/.373 and ranking in the bottom 2% in the league in hard-hit percentage. Andrew McCutchen may be starting to show his age, still carrying a good eye at the plate as his Old Man Skill, but struggling to hit for any power at .179/.307/.286. Old Friend Jean Segura is currently on the Injured List and hasn’t played since April 20th. Prospect Nick Maton has played well in his absence, though, hitting .348/.388/.457 in 13 games.

The Probable Pitchers

Vince Velasquez will take the ball for the Phillies in the opener, making his third start in place of Matt Moore, who is still in COVID-19 protocols (perhaps a bad sign for how long Corbin Burnes could be on the shelf for the Brewers). Velasquez’s 6.57 ERA and 7.08 FIP look worse than they otherwise might be due to him giving up 4 runs in 1.1 innings of relief work in his first outing of the year against the Mets — a 40-pitch headache he’s been trying to work out of ever since. Since returning to the rotation, he’s been solid while working shorter starts, allowing 2 runs over 4 innings against the Rockies on April 23rd and allowing 3 runs over 4.1 innings against the Cardinals on Wednesday in an outing that was good enough for the Phillies to pull out a 5-3 win. His stuff isn’t overpowering, averaging 93 on his fastball with an 89 mph changeup, and he has the tendency to walk plenty if the Brewers can be patient. He’ll go up against Adrian “Babe” Houser tonight.

Phillies ace Aaron Nola will pitch the second night of the series, and he has a history of pitching well against the Brewers, with a sub-3 ERA in 6 career starts against the Crew. He threw a 2-hit, 0-walk, 10-strikeout shutout against the Cardinals on April 18th but hasn’t looked as sharp since then, allowing a total of 7 runs over 13 innings in his last two starts. Unlike Velasquez, Nola will not allow many extra baserunners through walks — his BB% is among the best in the league through the season’s first month — and he doesn’t allow very many hard-hit balls. Eric Lauer may need a repeat of his start against the Dodgers to keep the pace against Nola.

Old Friend Chase Anderson is scheduled to start for the Phillies on Wednesday night against Freddy Peralta, who has to be drooling at the thought of facing a Phillies lineup that ranks in the top 10 in strikeouts coming into the week. Anderson is largely the same pitcher as the one we last saw in Milwaukee — he’s able to get a decent amount of chases, pun not intended but appreciated, out of the strike zone but gets hit hard when he leaves too much in the zone. He’s in the 30th percentile of the league when it comes to hard-hit percentage, and he’s near the bottom of the league when it comes to expected batting average, expected slugging percentage and expected wOBA — basically, Statcast thinks he’s throwing batting practice and he’s lucky to have the 5.40 ERA he has. Still, he’s had only one blowup outing this year — a 6-run, 3.2-inning disaster start against the Rockies last week, and Joe Girardi has been good about taking him out before he falls off the tightrope.

Former Almost Brewer Zack Wheeler is scheduled to make the start Thursday afternoon in the series finale against Brandon Woodruff in what could be a fun pitcher’s duel and a long day for both strikeout-prone offenses. Wheeler has struck out 41 batters in his first 38.2 innings this year with a 1.11 WHIP, averaging 97 mph on his fastball and 91 mph (!!) on his wipeout slider. He was carrying a 3.13 ERA after April, but allowed 4 runs in 7 innings against the Mets on Saturday to bump his season ERA up to 3.49. In 5 career starts against the Brewers, Wheeler has put up a 2.90 ERA, striking out 34 compared to 9 walks in 31 innings.

Outside of Nola and Wheeler, we likely won’t see Phillies starters work very deep into these games. Girardi, like Craig Counsell, likes to limit his non-studs to a couple trips through the order before turning things over to the bullpen. Unlike Counsell, though, Girardi has had less success with the Phillies bullpen — something that’s hampered the team for awhile and could come into play again this week.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Statcast