WASHINGTON - Sunday was more than just a loss for the Phillies, it was a missed opportunity they might not have again this season.
It's rare that Max Scherzer's mound opponent matches him but that's what Jake Arrieta did. While Scherzer stole the headlines with 15 strikeouts in 6⅓ innings, Arrieta was hyper-efficient, needing just 75 pitches through six.
While Scherzer was missing bat after bat after bat, Arrieta was getting soft contact early in counts in the form of groundballs and lazy pop-ups. He went nearly the same distance as Scherzer, just in 36 fewer pitches.
The bullpen meltdown that ensued in a 5-4 loss cost the Phillies a series win in a tough place to play (see first take). It was their fourth straight series defeat.
It was frustrating because the Phillies played the Nationals tough, and from first pitch Saturday until Tommy Hunter allowed two runs in the eighth Sunday, Washington had a total of five hits.
The Phils came oh-so-close to taking two of three in their first series against a team many project to approach 100 wins.
How long will this one stick with a manager?
"We will replay probably every pitch of the game in some capacity and we'll use it to inform really good decisions going forward," Gabe Kapler said, visibly upset for perhaps the first time in his rookie season. "Both how we manage our players and how we make decisions in the dugout. A day like today is a real good challenge and an opportunity to learn."
Kapler, who so far has evaded criticizing any player, came close to it when describing the final two innings in which Hunter and Hector Neris combined to allow seven baserunners while recording two outs.
"Obviously, our bullpen should come in and throw strikes to the best of their ability," he said. "That's one thing that they know they have to do and it didn't happen today. Certainly, that was a struggle."
Some will overreact and call for Neris' head. Just search his name on Twitter. (Or maybe better yet, don't.) But the Phillies' bullpen has pitched well lately and is deep in quality arms with Neris, Hunter, Luis Garcia and the consistent Edubray Ramos. It's important to keep that perspective after a game like this.
As for Arrieta, a consummate teammate and pro, it wasn't easy to watch the final two innings unfold. Before Arrieta met with reporters, Rhys Hoskins walked over to him and quietly assured him the team will regroup.
"You know, we had Max at 77 pitches, something like that, in the fourth or fifth inning," Arrieta said. "He's going to strike out a ton of guys. He's got that kind of stuff. He knows how to pitch as good or better than anybody else in the game. He's been doing it for years and years. That's kind of what you expect from a guy like that. Not necessarily 15 punchies every time he goes out there, but you know he's going to approach double digits just about every time he takes the hill.
"We understand that he's going to be confident, as he should. But you know, we're confident as well and we were in it until the last out. It just didn't work out for us.
"The guys are going to show up ready to play tomorrow. It sucks to lose this game, especially with taking a 4-1 lead. But this kind of stuff happens. It would've been great to win a series against these guys on the road, a tremendous team who has been really close to getting to the World Series the past couple years. So, it's a test for us, and we're going to play these guys another five times. We match up pretty well."
Fans should take solace from the fact Arrieta, who has a 3.15 ERA and .207 opponents' batting average, has looked like an ace in four of his six starts. His success will go a long way in determining the 2018 Phillies' fate.
They should also take solace from the fact that they finally found some sort of effective plan against Bryce Harper, who made 11 straight outs after homering in his first two at-bats of the series.
It won't feel like it matters today, but those are two important developments with these teams set to play 16 more games.