Coming into the season, the Braves and Phillies were supposed to duel for last place in MLB. Things have not gone according to plan in many regards, but the Phillies have to be excited with their windfall, as they currently have MLB's sixth-best record at 24-17.
The Phillies have been a strange beast so far. They've scored the second-fewest runs in MLB (the Braves are, of course, last, on a per-game runs basis), and while their pitching has been pretty good at keeping runs off the board, they've already outplayed their Pythagorean expectation by seven whole games! A lot of that is due to a ridiculous 14-3 record in one-run games (and 4-0 in extra-inning games), but you won't hear any complaints from manager Pete Mackanin and his staff. Speaking of Mackanin, he presents an interesting foil for current Braves skipper Brian Snitker: Mackanin was the interim manager in 2015 after Ryne Sandberg resigned, and had his interim tag removed for the 2016 season.
This will be the second series between the division rivals in 2016: the Phillies came to Atlanta in the middle of last week and took two of three. Tonight's starter, Matt Wisler, also started that series opener for Atlanta, pitching eight innings of three-run ball while allowing eight hits and two walks, garnering just two strikeouts. It was one in a series of strong starts for Wisler, who's pitched into the eighth inning while allowing three or fewer runs in each of his last three tries. Overall, his ERA is nice and shiny at 3.14 while his FIP now sits just below 4.00 at 3.98. He's still not striking anyone out, but at least the walks have been kept fairly low as well, and either his luck on balls in play or his effective managing of contact (depending on how you want to look at it, probably a mix of both) have let him work deep into games.
Opposing Wisler will be another sophomore right-hander, Aaron Nola. The Braves missed Nola last week in Atlanta, but he has absolutely dazzled so far, with a 2.89 ERA belying a wondrous 2.15 FIP. Nola has been incredibly impressive in the early going, with 58 strikeouts to just nine walks surrendered, and has really only had one bad start all season. The Braves will likely have their hands full once again, unless Nola uncharacteristically struggles. The Phillies have won Nola's last five starts, and he's allowed just six runs over that stretch, so... eep.
While the Braves haven't seen 2016 Nola, they did see 2015 Nola three times in his first 13 major league starts, and things did not go very well for them then either. He won his first two starts against the Braves and allowed just three runs in 19 innings. So... double eep.
On the offensive end, both of these offenses are terrible, but the Phillies have had an edge so far, with a 77 team non-pitcher wRC+ compared to the Braves' 71. The Braves are still on pace for the worst offensive performance since the 19th century, but the Phillies are also in the bottom 10 in offensive performance since 1900, so it's really a battle of relative futility there. At least the Phillies have Maikel Franco, who tormented Wisler last week (3-for-4 with a homer), even though he's been pretty bad (83 wRC+, 285 OBP) so far this season.
Another fun story for the Phillies is young infielder Tommy Joseph, who was recently called up after punishing AAA pitching for 100 PAs this year. Joseph was a second-round pick in 2009 and was acquired in the Hunter Pence trade, and hit his first major league homer earlier this week against the Marlins. He's ridden a .600 BABIP to a .400/.455/.700 line in his first handful of PAs, and while he's not likely to draw starts in this series due to the still-living carcass of Ryan Howard, he's still a fun guy to watch if he gets some pinch-hit appearances or something of the sort.
Overall, the Braves have lost 11 of 14, and, to everyone's knowledge, are extremely terrible as a baseball team. Erick Aybar, now free of any poultry skeletal detritus lodged in his body, may return to the lineup tonight, although it's unclear whether that's really a good thing at this point. The Braves are currently on pace to tie the worst record since World War II (1962 Mets, 40-120), but at least they're ahead of the mark for the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics and the 1935 Boston Braves, so they may avoid being the worst team since 1900, which would be potentially nice.
Game Date/Time: Friday, May 20, 7:05 p.m. ET
Location: Citizens Bank Park
TV: Fox Sports South
Radio: WYAY 106.7, Braves Radio Network, 680 AM/93.7 FM