Had someone been living under a rock the past six months only to crawl out today to take their first glance at the MLB standings, they might be inclined to think there was a misprint in the NL East where the Washington Nationals rank at the top with the Philadelphia Phillies down in third.
We wouldn't blame anyone for thinking that given the preseason MLB futures odds in April. Philadelphia was priced at -185 to take home a sixth consecutive division flag with Washington (+450) expected to finish third at best. Instead, the Nationals are looking at a magic number of five to win their first division title since playing as the Expos back in 1981 while the Phillies, though mathematically still in the hunt, are relegated to playing the role of spoilers.
Washington will look to trim that magic number against the Phils beginning Tuesday when the clubs begin a 3-game series in the City of Brotherly Love. First pitch from Citizens Bank Park is at 7:05 p.m. (ET) and will be delivered by Cole Hamels with the Phillies opening as $1.45 favorites. Opposing him in the all-southpaw duel is Ross Detwiler and a quick check of the Don Best Pro Odds finds a 7½-run total priced to the 'under.'
The schedule maker didn't do the Nats many favors with a tough slate to close out the 2012 campaign. Since reaching a season-high 35 games over .500 with a sweep of the Mets on Sept. 12, Washington has stumbled a bit with a 4-6 mark heading into this set at Philadelphia. That record coincidentally corresponds to the announcement the team was shutting down ace Stephen Strasburg for the season. Strasburg has missed two potential outings during the Nationals' 4-6 run.
The good news is Davey Johnson still has a quality starting quartet to take his crew into the postseason. Gio Gonzalez, who will likely make just one more start before the regular season draws to a close, leads the foursome that also includes Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson. That group will be backed up by a solid relief corps that is only now seeing former closer Drew Storen round into form after missing the first half with elbow trouble.
Detwiler has been on a pretty good roll since the all-star break with the Nationals 9-4 behind him in the second half. That includes a 3-0 shutout vs. Philadelphia in early-August when the former Missouri State star tossed seven shutout frames and allowed just three hits.
Three of the four losses Washington has suffered with Detwiler on the hill the past three months have come on the road. The Nationals have also dropped two of his three assignments in Philly, though Detwiler has pitched to a 2.95 ERA in his career on the Citizens Bank Park bump.
Hamels, meanwhile, has been a Nats killer with Philly sporting a 16-7 record in his 23 career outings vs. Washington and pitching to a 2.48 ERA. All three of his starts this season have been quality efforts and resulted in two Phillies wins. One note about those numbers is Hamels had never pitched at Nationals Park before this year, making 11 straight starts vs. Washington at home from 2008-11 before taking the mound in DC back in May.
Philadelphia backers have cashed in seven of Hamels' last eight starts while he has pared about a quarter-run off his season ERA since the end of July.
These outfits have seen each other 12 times already this season, and will meet once again for a 3-game series in Washington next week to close out the schedule. The Phillies have a 7-5 lead in the season series, and are 52-28 against the Nats at home since CBP opened in 2004. The last time they got together in Philly, 'under' bettors swept the set to give low-side wagers a 5-1 record in the six games played this year in Philadelphia.
A few clouds are in the forecast for Tuesday night with the thermometer in the upper-60s for the start of the game. A southerly wind (out to center) of 10 mph is also in the mix.