Phillies-Giants 5 things: Another day, another ace to face in Johnny Cueto


Phillies (32-44) at Giants (48-28)
4:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies picked up a shocking win over Madison Bumgarner on Saturday night and look to win their three-game series with the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants on Sunday.

A slumping Aaron Nola takes the hill for the Phils against the Giants' other ace, Johnny Cueto.

Here are five things to know for Sunday afternoon's game. 

1. Righting the ship?
It's been a rough little stretch for Nola. After he looked like the Phillies' most dependable pitcher through May, hitters have teed off on him in his last few starts.

The stats are not for the faint of heart.

Nola has a 15.83 ERA in his last three starts, allowing 20 runs — 17 earned — in fewer than 10 innings. Opponents have also collected 22 hits off him in all three losses. The stretch has taken his sterling 2.65 ERA up to 4.11. 

Unlike his losses earlier in the season, home runs have not been the main culprit. He gave up two homers to the Blue Jays on June 16, but none to the Twins or Nationals in the starts sandwiching the Toronto outing. 

What can easily be lost in all of this is Nola is just 23 years old and in his second big league season. Performances like this are par for the course with young pitchers (see Velasquez, Vince for reference) and it will be a key part of his development to see how he bounces back.

Ultimately, the best pitchers separate themselves by their ability to avoid bad innings and hold the opposition at bay when they don't have their best stuff. Nola has done that at times in his short major league career, but doing so on a consistent basis would help him move toward becoming the ace Phillies fans crave.

2. Here's Johnny
Facing Nola is a pitcher who has been and can easily continue to be characterized as an ace. Johnny Cueto has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since coming back to the National League this offseason.

As many know, Cueto was the Reds' top pitcher until last July, when Cincinnati shipped him to Kansas City for a haul of pitching prospects. While the Royals expected him to be an ace, he fell flat during the regular season for the first-place Royals.

But he shined in the postseason. Despite a clunker against Toronto, he pitched the Royals to victory in Game 5 of the ALDS over the Houston Astros and threw an electrifying complete game win in Game 2 of the World Series to propel Kansas City past the Mets. The Giants then signed the free agent pitcher to a six-year, $130 million deal. 

With his poor regular season numbers in KC, many worried about tossing a long-term deal at him this offseason. The Giants' faith in his overall résumé has paid off.

In 109⅓ innings, Cueto has a 2.06 ERA and an 11-1 record, striking out 96 batters. He's allowed fewer than one walk and hit per inning pitched and has looked worth every penny. 

The numbers are even better in his last seven starts. He is 6-0 with a 1.05 ERA in that span, allowing just 30 hits and 11 walks compared to 43 strikeouts. His outright filthy stuff will be an issue for Phillies hitters Sunday afternoon.

3. Brandon Belt: highly underrated
There are plenty of reasons why the Giants have one of the best records in baseball right now and it doesn't all boil down to Cueto and Bumgarner. One major piece is Brandon Belt's emergence in the middle of their lineup.

In a year where Buster Posey hasn't quite been his MVP-esque self, Belt has taken over as the Giants' best hitter. Belt, 28, took a step back in 2014, but has improved steadily over the past two years, going from solid starter to All-Star worthy. 

The .275 career hitter is batting .304 in 72 games this year. He has an on-base percentage over .400 and a slugging percentage over .500, displaying both the power analysts hoped for, and the strong eye at the plate that kept him a Giants' regular. 

The Phillies have gotten an up-close look at the strides he's taken during this series. He knocked in three runs on two doubles Friday before picking up a single off Jeremy Hellickson Saturday. While he hadn't hit the Phillies well before 2015, he hit .360 against them last year with a homer. 

If there's one batter you don't want to let beat you on the 2016 Giants, it's surely Belt with his steady lefty swing. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Andres Blanco continues to earn more playing time. One of the few hitters with prior success against Bumgarner, Blanco knocked in the Phillies' first run Saturday night against the Giants' ace before scoring the tying run. His .273 batting average is second on the team.

Giants: Angel Pagan carries a six-game hitting streak into Sunday. His three hits and two RBIs helped propel San Francisco past the Phillies on Friday and he followed that up with a hit Saturday. 

5. This and that 
• Cameron Rupp hit his seventh home run of the season Saturday. It took him until Aug. 28 last season to reach that number. 

• Ryan Howard is 4 for 21 with four walks against Cueto. He hit a home run against him in 2009.

• Nola has never faced the Giants. He has not faced any of their hitters, even when they were on other teams (Denard Span was injured for the Nationals last year when Nola faced Washington). 

• Cueto is 1-4 with a 5.05 ERA against the Phillies in his career.

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