This Phillies season could not have started any better. A three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park was followed by a successful Bryce Harper homecoming down at Nationals Park as the runs flowed like wine in the Napa Valley. The Phillies scored five or more in each of their first six games and eight or more in five of them.

It was no easy schedule out of the starting gate either with the first 11 being played against the Braves, Nationals and Minnesota Twins. The Phillies navigated that difficult stretch by starting 7-4, but they’ve been just one game above .500 since and their first half was deemed a disappointment that has left them in third place, 6 1/2 games behind Atlanta and a half game behind Washington.

The second half begins Friday night with the Nationals in town for the start of a three-game series. This is the Phillies’ penultimate series against Washington. The teams will not meet again until the Phillies’ final road trip of the season, a tortuous 11-game journey that starts in Atlanta, moves to Cleveland and ends with five games in Washington.

Obviously, the Phillies need another good start in the second half and a better finish than they had to the first half if they want to end their seven-year playoff drought.

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Stephen Strasburg will pitch the opening game of the second half for the Washington Nationals Friday night against the Phillies.
Stephen Strasburg will pitch the opening game of the second half for the Washington Nationals Friday night against the Phillies.

The Nationals could overtake the Braves, too

On May 23, the Nationals left Citi Field after being swept in a four-game series by the New York Mets. Their record was 19-31 and they trailed the first-place Phillies by 10 games. Even with the loss of Bryce Harper, the Nats were considered among baseball’s most disappointing teams at that point in the season.

Since then, however, they have gone 28-11 and passed the Phillies in the standings by a half game. They still trail the Braves by six games, but the Nationals have 14 games left against Atlanta and there’s no question they have the best starting pitching in the division. The Phillies face their big three this weekend at Citizens Bank Park.

Stephen Strasburg (10-4, 3.64 ERA) is 9-3 with a 3.17 ERA in his last 14 starts and has logged six or more innings in 12 of those 14 starts. He starts Friday night against Nick Pivetta, who has a 7.33 ERA in his last four starts.

Patrick Corbin (7-5, 3.34) has a 0.96 ERA in his last four starts and will pitch against Aaron Nola Saturday in the only pitching matchup that at least looks somewhat favorable for the Phillies.

Max Scherzer (9-5, 2.30) leads the majors in strikeouts (181) and the National League in innings pitched (129 1/3) and is again a leading candidate for the Cy Young Award. He pitches Sunday. The Phillies have not named a Sunday starter yet, but were leaning toward Jake Arrieta, who spent the All-Star break in a doctor’s office to see if he could continue pitching with bone chips in his elbow. He will, but it should be noted that he has a 6.63 ERA in his last seven starts.

If the Phillies can win this series given those matchups, it would be a great start to the second half.

The rundown

The trade deadline is fast approaching and general manager Matt Klentak is charged with getting the starting pitching help the Phillies neglected to get during their off-season spending spree. Our Scott Lauber examines what a daunting task that will be.

Columnist Marcus Hayes believes that Rhys Hoskins has remained a bright light for the Phillies even as the optimism about the team has dimmed.

If you’re interested in a fun and fascinating journey, take a trip with our Frank Fitzpatrick as he revisits Babe Ruth’s many brushes with the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding area, including one that nearly resulted in his death.

The baseballs are juiced and you can count columnist Bob Ford among the people who are not happy about it. Houston ace Justin Verlander and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon agree with Ford.

Important dates

Tonight: Nick Pivetta vs. Washington’s Stephen Strasburg to start second half, 6:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: Aaron Nola goes against lefty Patrick Corbin, 7:15 p.m.

Sunday: Max Scherzer on the mound for Nats on Ryan Howard Retirement Day, 1:05 p.m. is

Monday: National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers come to town, 7:05 p.m.

Thursday: Matinee conclusion to four-game series with the Dodgers, 12:35 p.m.

Jayson Werth was part of a 2010 Phillies team that went 50-25 after the All-Star break to finish with the best record in baseball for the first time in franchise history.
Steven M. Falk / Staff file photo
Jayson Werth was part of a 2010 Phillies team that went 50-25 after the All-Star break to finish with the best record in baseball for the first time in franchise history.

Stat of the day

The Phillies pulled into the All-Star break a year ago with a 53-42 record and a half-game lead over Atlanta in the National League East. They, of course, proceeded to collapse down the stretch, going 27-40 after the break to finish in third place, 10 games behind the Braves. During their string of five straight division titles from 2007 through 2011, the Phillies were known for shifting into high gear after the All-Star break. They were good before the break during that span, going 248-200 for a .554 winning percentage. After the break in those five seasons, they were 225-137, a .622 winning percentage.

The best second-half team of the bunch was the 2010 squad, which went 50-25 after the break to finish with a major-league leading 97 wins. The Phillies made up 10 1/2 games on the first-place Braves after the break to win the N.L. East by six games. This year’s Phillies team was just the second to have a winning record at the break since 2011. The Phillies are 327-404 in the first half since their last division title in 2011 and they are 227-266 after the break since 2011. The Phillies’ last winning second half was 2012 when they went 44-31 to finish the year 81-81. That is the last season the Phillies did not have a losing record.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @brookob.

Question: Why is Nola pitching the Saturday game against the Nationals instead of the Friday game? - Scott, via email

Answer: I asked manager Gabe Kapler last Sunday if he planned to throw Aaron Nola in the first game after the All-Star break and he did not know the answer at the time. I suspect he just wanted to give Nola an extra day of rest after moving up one of his recent starts to allow him to pitch twice before the All-Star break. Given that the Nationals are throwing their three stud starters during the series, I’m not sure it mattered much if Nola pitched Friday against Strasburg or Saturday against Corbin. The better question is this: Why is Pivetta pitching instead of Zach Eflin on Friday? Eflin was obviously the better pitcher during the first half of the season.