Nationals look to stay sharp against Phillies (Sep 25, 2017)

PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals, having comfortably clinched the National League East two weeks earlier, knocked off another checklist item Sunday as the regular season winds down.

With a 3-2 win over the New York Mets, the Nationals ensured they will play their National League Division Series playoff round at home. Game 1 will be Oct. 6.

A win by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday kept the club 4 1/2 games ahead of Washington for the best record in the NL. It’s not mathematically impossible for the Nationals to catch the Dodgers, but with Los Angeles (99-57) only having six games remaining, that possibility is unlikely.

So the Nationals (94-61) head to Philadelphia for a three-game series with the Phillies (62-94) without much left to play for.

But with hopes for a deep playoff run, don’t expect the Nationals to take their feet off the gas just yet.

“That’s why these games are so important,” Sunday’s winning pitcher Max Scherzer told MLB.com. “Everybody’s trying to make those fine-tune adjustments to get on top of their game, so when you do get in the playoffs, you’re already accustomed to knowing how you need to play offensively and defensively.”

Perhaps the only Nationals player who needs fine-tuning is star outfielder Bryce Harper. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Harper (left knee) will be activated for Monday’s game. Harper, once an MVP candidate who owns a .326 batting average with 29 home runs and 87 RBIs, hasn’t played since Aug. 12.

Washington manager Dusty Baker would only say the team was still making up its mind regarding the decision and would not confirm the report.

On the mound Monday for the Nationals is RHP A.J. Cole (2-5, 4.43 ERA). He’ll face off with Phillies ace Aaron Nola (12-10, 3.56).

Cole, who is making his eighth start of 2017, has made four previous appearances against Philadelphia. Monday will be his third start.

Cole has a 1-1 record and a 3.63 ERA in 17 1/3 innings against the Phillies. His first start of 2017 came May 6 at Citizens Bank Park, when he picked up a win after allowing one run in six innings.

Nola, who since the All-Star break has looked like the ace Philadelphia drafted him to be, will likely be making his final start of the season. The Phillies, who have six games remaining, have deployed a six-man rotation in recent weeks.

Nola, 24, is making his fourth start of the year against Washington. He’s 1-0 with a 3.31 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings. For his career, Nola is 1-3 with a 4.69 ERA, the highest ERA he has against any team he has pitched more than 16 innings against.

Nola is one of a few promising young Phillies carrying the club to an exciting second half. Rookies Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams and J.P. Crawford have all shown they could bring meaningful September baseball back to Philadelphia sooner than later.

Pushed by his fellow youngsters, 25-year-old Maikel Franco has been raking lately. The third baseman, who hit a solo home run in a 2-0 win in Atlanta on Sunday, is hitting .348 with two doubles, three home runs, eight RBIs and a .949 OPS in 12 games after Crawford came up from Triple-A and started three consecutive games at third base.

“I think when those guys come up, it always creates an energy spurt in everybody,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin told MLB.com.

In the other clubhouse, it is Harper’s potential return that could be an opportune energy spurt for Washington as the postseason looms.