WASHINGTON — A few hours before the start of Friday night's game, in the quiet of an empty ballpark in the nation's capital, Gabe Kapler mentioned the "challenge" that this three-game series — the start of a stretch of seven games in 10 days against the two-time defending National League East champions — poses to his young Phillies team.
The Phillies kicked off the most difficult week-and-a-half of their season with an eruption of offense in a 12-2 giggler over the Washington Nationals. Odubel Herrera notched four hits and tied a club record by homering in his fifth consecutive game. Every non-pitcher in the lineup reached base at least once. And for a change, Kapler's closer-less bullpen didn't have to sweat out the final six outs of a game.
It was, dare we say it, easy. Almost too easy. The Phillies won for the eighth time in 11 games and pulled into sole possession of second place in the NL East, sliding a half-game ahead of the Nationals, losers of eight of 11.
"It's always satisfying to beat great teams like the Nationals," Herrera said. "It's a good challenge for us. You always want to see where you are at."
Herrera singled and scored in the first inning, then broke a 2-2 tie by taking Nationals starter Tanner Roark deep into the right-field bullpen for a two-run homer in the third. He singled in the sixth inning and again in the eighth.
After slumping for about three weeks, Herrera is on a 17-for-36 tear. He's the sixth Phillies player to homer in five games in a row, joining teammate Rhys Hoskins last year, Chase Utley (two streaks in 2008), Bobby Abreu (2005), Mike Schmidt (1979) and Dick Allen (1969).
"I don't think there are any words for it," said starter Zach Eflin, the recipient of Herrera's support. "It's just simply incredible what he can do. The thing with Odubel is he can shake off anything at any given time. It can be one pitch and he's back in the game. Make it look like he's struggling and the next pitch, he hits it 440 feet."
But Herrera wasn't alone in pounding the Nationals. The Phillies made Roark throw 29 pitches in the first inning and kept their feet on the pedal. Roark threw a whopping 113 pitches in a 4 1/3-inning slog. And with the Nationals scheduled to send rookies Erick Fedde and Jefry Rodriguez to the mound over the next two games, the last thing manager Dave Martinez wanted to do was ask his bullpen to get 14 outs in the series opener.
Carlos Santana, who leads all NL players with a combined 54 extra-base hits and walks since May 1, notched a two-run single in a 3-0 count in the first inning and swatted a two-run homer in the sixth. Leadoff man Cesar Hernandez went 3-for-5 with a walk. Right fielder Nick Williams drove in three runs.
Hernandez, Herrera, Santana and Williams combined for 11 of the Phillies' 15 hits.
Kapler didn't expect this. Not even with the Phillies lucking into not having to face Nationals ace Max Scherzer or tough lefty Gio Gonzalez, who started the previous two games against the Baltimore Orioles. Asked how he regarded this three-game series — the beginning of a 10-game stretch in which the Phillies will face the Nationals, the New York Yankees, and the Nationals again — Kapler kept coming back to one word.
"I think [the Nationals are] a good club, and it's a challenge," he said. "That's the way I'm looking at it."
There's another way to look at these games. If, 10 days from now, the upstart Phillies are still in the thick of both the NL East and wild-card races, they will have proved to the front office that they are worthy of receiving roster reinforcements at the trade deadline.
"At this point, in a lot of ways, we've proven ourselves. We're a pretty good ballclub," Kapler said. "We've gone toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the league, and done a pretty good job. At some point, it stops being that we're trying to prove ourselves, and we're just competing with really good teams."
General manager Matt Klentak has said he's open to acquiring even short-term help in the form of a free-agent-to-be. But before he takes that plunge, be it for Orioles star Manny Machado or Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre or any other rent-a-player, he said he wants to see where the Phillies stand after this month.
"We have to evaluate our team and figure out where we are heading into the month of July, come out of the all-star break and make the most informed decisions that we can," Klentak said earlier this week. "The performance of the team will dictate our direction.
Sounds like another challenge, doesn't it?