WASHINGTON -- The Phillies have played 35 games this season and by the whim of the schedule maker, a dozen of them have come against the Washington Nationals, who own the best record in the National League and have legitimate World Series hopes - though they may have to fix their bullpen to see that happen.
The Phillies and Nationals don't see each other again until September 7. By then, the Nats could be getting their postseason rotation in order and the Phillies could be on their way to another top-10 draft pick.
The two teams said so long to each other for a while with a super-long day of baseball Sunday and the Phillies once again played the Nats tough, earning a split of a day-night doubleheader with a 4-3 win in the first game and a 6-5 loss in the nightcap.
The split left the Phils with a 5-7 record against the Nats for the season, certainly not great, but definitely respectable. And it could be better if the Phils had not suffered three walk-off losses to the Nats, including one on Saturday night when Bryce Harper clubbed a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth that left pitching coach Bob McClure more than a little frustrated (see story).
"You've heard me complain about the tough schedule, but this is one of the best hitting teams in baseball and we're 5-7 against them," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "They know we play them tough."
The Phillies won the first game on the strength of a three-run rally in the top of the ninth inning. Aaron Altherr started the uprising with a home run and Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp combined to tie the game with back-to-back doubles. The Phillies took the lead on a RBI single by Ty Kelly and Hector Neris closed out the one-run game for the save.
Neris was in line to go for another save in the nightcap as the Phillies rallied back from a run down in the eighth to take a 5-4 lead on an RBI triple by Freddy Galvis. However, Neris never got a shot to get in the game. Mackanin called on a right-hander Pat Neshek to hold the lead in the bottom of the eighth and he failed. He gave up a one-out single to Anthony Rendon followed by a first-pitch homer to Michael A. Taylor as the Nats took the lead.
It was another painful meltdown for the bullpen.
"Freddy came up big; he does that a lot," Mackanin said. "Neshek made one bad pitch.
"It was a hard-fought battle, see-saw, back and forth. Our guys battled. I know I'm a broken record but they don't quit and they just kept coming after them."
The Phillies led in all three games of the series but lost twice when their bullpen gave up killer home runs late in the game. That's 24 homers allowed by the bullpen, the most in baseball.
"Way too much," Mackanin said.
Neshek stood right up after the game.
He threw Taylor a first-pitch slider and Taylor smacked it off the left-field foul pole.
"It backed up," Neshek said. "Terrible pitch. I was hoping it would go foul. But he was looking to do that and you tip your cap. I wish I could have gotten it to move a couple more inches to the left or thrown a fastball. But that's how baseball is.
"These guys played so hard today, especially scrapping against (Max) Scherzer there. I felt like I let them down."
Scherzer, last year's NL Cy Young Award winner, pitched six innings of three-run ball, walked none and struck out eight.
Phillies starter Vince Velasquez had a big fastball - "the best we've seen all season," Mackanin said - and gave up just three runs in five innings, but he ran his pitch count to 100 and was gone early.
No Phillies starter went more than five innings in this series. Nick Pivetta went 4 2/3 innings Saturday night and Jeremy Hellickson and Velasquez both went five Sunday.
Hellickson had more in the tank, but Mackanin opted for a pinch-hitter and a shot at some offense. Hellickson did not buy himself the benefit of staying the game after allowing two home runs in the first five innings, raising his total to seven in his last three starts.
"I've got to keep the ball in the yard," he said.
Mackanin believes that once his rotation starts giving him more innings he can better slot his relievers into roles. The shortage of innings in the rotation is a big problem for this team.
"Once we get going and we get that length from our starters we'll have a formula and be fine," he said.