Nationals remain wary of strong pitching staff

After winning five National League East titles in a row, the Philadelphia Phillies host the Nationals this weekend at Citizens Bank Park with nothing on the line.

The Phillies dealt key veterans Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the July 31 trade deadline once it became clear the competitive portion of the 2012 season was over. But that doesn't mean they can't make life difficult for first-place Washington down the stretch, either. After all, they took two of three games at Nationals Park earlier this month.

Injuries to key players, including first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley, plus a weak bullpen crippled Philadelphia early in the season. The starting pitching has been good, though not as dominant as expected. Yet since the start of the second half, with Utley and Howard back, the Phillies still had a 20-17 record entering Thursday's game against Cincinnati.

"Without Howard and Utley in your lineup all season, that's tough to overcome," Nats outfielder Jayson Werth said. "I'm not convinced that it's over for them. They're still going to be a pretty good team as the years go on here. Unfortunately, I guess more fortunately for us, it's been our year this year."

The two teams begin a three-game series Friday with Washington (77-47) hoping to take another step toward a division title. It led second-place Atlanta by six games before the Braves' late game in San Francisco on Thursday night.

But beating the Phillies (57-67) won't be easy -- even if there is a 20-game difference in the standings between them. That's in part because of whom Philadelphia is throwing at the Nats in this series. On Friday the Nats face Kyle Kendrick, whose ERA is a respectable 4.20 and who is coming off back-to-back shutouts of the Miami Marlins in 15 innings of work.

Then the Phillies counter with ace Roy Halladay on Saturday night in a marquee matchup with Gio Gonzalez (3.23 ERA). Halladay was roughed up at home by the Cincinnati Reds on Monday with five earned runs and 10 hits allowed in seven innings. But earlier in the month he had given up just four runs total on 11 hits in 22 innings. If he isn't exactly the old Halladay, the 35-year-old veteran still can show flashes of that dominance.

Sunday's starter, Cliff Lee, hasn't had his typical season, either. But his ERA is still 3.78, and he has given Philadelphia a chance to win nearly every start, allowing four runs or less in eight of his nine outings since July 4. It's probably a good thing the Nats have Jordan Zimmermann (2.54 ERA) on the mound to oppose him.