Phillies’ Hellickson looks to rebound against Nationals

PHILADELPHIA — Jeremy Hellickson has been the Philadelphia Phillies’ best starter this season. He’ll take the mound Sunday for the first time since his worst start.

Hellickson will face the Washington Nationals as the Phillies look to avoid a three-game sweep on Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.

Right-hander Tanner Roark will take the ball for the Nationals, who are in search of their fifth straight win.

Hellickson surrendered just six earned runs in his first four starts of the season, but that number doubled in four tumultuous innings at Wrigley Field on Tuesday. Three of the Cubs’ eight hits were homers – including a three-run shot by Kyle Schawrber – and it was the first time this season Hellickson didn’t pitch at least five innings.

“I fell behind too many guys,” Hellickson told after the 8-3 loss. “When I did get ahead, they fouled some good pitches off (and) got back into some hitters’ counts. I wasn’t able to put away guys. I didn’t really have command of much. The more pitches I threw, the worse it got.”

The right-hander was much sharper in a start against the Nationals on April 15. Hellickson gave up four hits and two runs in seven innings in a 4-2 win.

Roark also opposed Hellickson during that April 15 game and had nearly an identical line. The 30-year-old went seven innings and allowed two runs and four hits, but the Phillies got the win against the Nationals’ bullpen.

Roark was charged with his first loss of the season in his last outing. He had a season-best eight strikeouts but gave up four runs and six hits in six innings against Arizona. Roark threw a career-high 125 pitches in the six innings. He has averaged 105.5 pitches per outing this season.

At 21-9, the Nationals are surging, largely in part to a hot offense led by Ryan Zimmerman. The first baseman homered in both of the first two games of the series and has 10 in his last 16 games, though Baker said Saturday night that he probably will give Zimmerman the day off Sunday.

“We have to watch him. I’ll give him days off from time to time to make sure he doesn’t tire, because when you tire, you end up getting hurt sometimes,” Baker said. “With his history, we have to keep him healthy.”

Zimmerman hit his 13th home run of the season on Saturday night, which extended his current hitting streak to 13 games. Zimmerman, who leads the majors in multiple categories including average and OPS, tied Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge for the MLB home run lead.

Bryce Harper has missed the first two games of the series for the Nationals because of groin tightness. It’s unclear if he will return to the lineup in the series finale, though Baker told reporters it was a possibility.

The Phillies and Nationals will play three more games next weekend in Washington, but in between both will face interleague opponents. Washington will face four games (two on the road, two at home) with beltway rival Baltimore. Philadelphia will host Seattle for games on Tuesday and Wednesday.