For the rest of this season, at least, Bryce Harper still plays for the Nationals. And so, until further notice, the road to a division title in the National League East will continue to run through Washington, where the Phillies open a three-game series Friday night.

As much as any series they have played so far, this figures to be a barometer of how far the young Phillies have come in their quest to contend for a playoff spot. After a rocky, injury-plagued April, the Nationals have won five games in a row and evened their record at .500. With Harper batting atop the lineup, Trea Turner getting hot at the plate and ace Max Scherzer scheduled to start Sunday in the series finale, the Phillies will have their hands full.

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—  Scott Lauber (extrainnings@philly.com)

YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerAfter a strong April, the Phillies believe Nick Pivetta might have staying power in their starting rotation. Pivetta faces the Washington Nationals, his former team, Friday night.
YONG KIM
YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerAfter a strong April, the Phillies believe Nick Pivetta might have staying power in their starting rotation. Pivetta faces the Washington Nationals, his former team, Friday night.

Another test for Nick Pivetta

A few hours before Tuesday night's game in Miami, Nick Pivetta threw his usual between-starts bullpen session.

It was the best thing manager Gabe Kapler saw all day.

"This was the first time that I stood close enough to the plate to really see the pitches come out from Nick," Kapler said. "Incredible life on the fastball, spotting up. There were a lot of celebration and high-fives after his pen today. All of this is to say that he's got a chance to be really good."

Pivetta has been one of the brighter spots for the Phillies. He posted a 2.57 ERA through five starts and a 3.57 ERA in six starts overall. He's throwing his curveball about 25 percent of the time, up from 15 percent last year, and opponents are slugging only .364 against it. He has made a change to his mechanics, too, coming set at his chest rather than at the belt. Not coincidentally, perhaps, his command has been better. Pivetta has issued 1.9 walks per nine innings compared to 3.9 last season.

But there's so much more for the 25-year-old righthander to prove. The next test comes Friday night against the Nationals, who traded him to the Phillies three years ago for Jonathan Papelbon. How will Pivetta fare against Harper and the rest of the Nats? And will Kapler come away as impressed as he was after Tuesday's bullpen session?

"I think we've seen it transfer into game situations," Kapler said. "How do we get them to consistently show up over a long period of time? I think that comes with some experience. I think the expectation and belief in our clubhouse is that Pivetta has turned the corner."

The rundown

Carlos Santana acknowledges that the first month of his Phillies career was lousy. He isn't panicking, though. "Check back in September," said Santana, a notoriously slow starter. Something tells me Phillies fans will hold him to that.

The Nationals won again Thursday, and as Bob Brookover reminds us, they're still the team to beat in the NL East despite their injuries and lackluster April.

A few weeks ago, Kapler attended a game at double-A Reading and was wowed by pitching prospect Seranthony Dominquez. Since then, Dominquez has been promoted to triple-A Lehigh Valley. Before long, he might be in the Phillies' bullpen. Matt Breen went to Allentown and caught up with Dominquez for our weekly minor-league report.

Remember this name: Enyel De Los Santos. The 22-year-old righthander has been the best pitcher at Lehigh Valley.

Through last Sunday, TV ratings for Phillies games on NBC Sports Philadelphia were down about 5 percent from the same time last season, Rob Tornoe writes.

Important dates

Tonight: Phillies visit D.C. for their first look at the Nationals, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Bryce Harper is 5-for-6 in his career vs. Vince Velasquez, 4:05 p.m.
Sunday: Jake Arrieta vs. Max Scherzer in duel of the last two NL Cy Young winners, 1:35 p.m.
Monday: Phillies return home to face the Giants, 7:10 p.m.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro has been the Phillies’ hottest hitter over the past week, going 8-for-19 with two homers in his last five games.
Yong Kim/Staff Photographer
Catcher Jorge Alfaro has been the Phillies’ hottest hitter over the past week, going 8-for-19 with two homers in his last five games.

Stat of the day

Early candidate for Phillies MVP: Kevin Camiscioli. Never heard of him? Let's change that. Camiscioli is the Phillies' longtime director of video coaching services. Part of his job is to watch the game from the clubhouse, decide in a matter of seconds if it's worth challenging an umpire's call on the field, and swiftly relaying his verdict to bench coach Rob Thomson in the dugout. The Phillies won two more challenges Wednesday night in Miami and are 9-for-10 overall this season.

"That process is running very smoothly," Kapler said. "We believe heavily in Kevin's ability to identify when we should challenge and when we shouldn't."

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Sounds like Baltimore is shopping Manny Machado and Atlanta is interested. Machado can play shortstop and third base. Machado may be a free agent after the season, but should the Phillies trade for him now, with the intent of signing him long-term? Would a package of Franco, Williams, Santana and a prospect get it done? Thank you.

— Greg S., via email

Answer: Thanks for the note, Greg. As far as I'm concerned, it's never too soon to start the Machado-to-Philly chatter. And as long as the Orioles continue to flounder, the probability that Machado will be traded before July 31 will keep rising. But let's not kid ourselves here. Whichever team winds up trading for him will be getting a rent-a-player. Mark it down: Machado is 100 percent going out on the free-agent market this winter in search of a $300-plus million contract. Could he be a difference-maker for a fringe contender this season? Certainly. But I'm not sure that trading for him now would give the Phillies — or any other team — a tangible advantage in the offseason Machado derby.