WASHINGTON — Because they are one of baseball’s weakest offensive teams, the Phillies have little margin for error. Every game is a walk on a razor's edge. One mistake here or there can have losing consequences. They can lose a game, well, by an inch.
That was pretty much the story of the game on a hot and windy Sunday afternoon in the nation’s capital.
Mistakes were made on the mound early in the game and in the field late in the game. It all added up to a difficult 5-4 loss to the Washington Nationals (see Instant Replay).
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“That was a very tough loss to take,” manager Pete Mackanin said moments after the Nationals completed their second sweep of the Philliesin two weeks.
It was tough to take for a lot of reasons.
First, the Phillies trailed 3-0 after two innings mostly because starter Adam Morgan fell behind in counts and couldn’t keep the Nationals off the bases or in the ballpark.
Things clicked for Morgan in the third inning. He stopped nibbling, got the ball down and was a different pitcher. He did not allow a run over 4 2/3 innings while striking out a career-high eight. The game was tied at 3-3 when he exited.
“Morgan started off and looked so bad I thought we’re in the bullpen early," Mackanin said. "He settled down and that’s the best I’ve seen him pitch in two years after that first inning."
The Phillies took a 4-3 lead in the sweetest of ways in the top of the ninth inning. Maikel Franco belted a hanging 2-2 slider from Jonathan Papelbon into the left-field seats.
Just when it looked like the Phillies were going to hang a loss on their former teammate, the bottom of the ninth inning happened.
Closer Jeanmar Gomez fell behind in counts, gave up two hits and a two-out walk to load the bases. Jayson Werth then won it for the Nats when he stroked a 2-2 fastball up the middle to drive in two runs.
The blown save was just Gomez’ second in 21 opportunities this season.
But you could feel this one coming. First, Gomez pitched behind a lot. And then there was the play that came within an inch of going the Phillies' way.
With one out in the frame, pinch-hitter Bryce Harper stroked a ground ball between first and second. Second baseman Cesar Hernandez tracked the ball down in shallow right field, spun and threw to first baseman Tommy Joseph. The throw was high-left on Joseph and pulled him slightly off the bag, but enough that Harper was ruled safe on a call that stood up to replay.
There was some question whether Joseph may have held the bag with the side of his right foot, but he didn’t help his cause when he reached back with the foot to touch the base as Harper was crossing the bag.
“I believe, from what I saw on the replay, if he didn’t go back with his foot at the last second they would have called him out,” Mackanin said.
Joseph said he went back for the bag because he couldn’t feel the base with the side of his foot.
“That didn’t look good,” he admitted.
Of course, this is all moot if Hernandez executes a better throw. It was a tough play — as evidenced by the official scorer's awarding Harper a hit — but one a big-leaguer can make.
“Yeah, I think so,” Mackanin said. “Cesar, I’m sure, feels worse than anyone here. It’s a shame, but we can’t afford to make mistakes. We’ve got to play clean games to win.”
Even Gomez admitted to making a mistake on the 2-2 sinker that Werth hit for the win. He wanted it down and away. It was up.
The Phillies must play clean games because their offense doesn’t cover up mistakes. They entered Sunday ranked last in the majors in batting average (.230), and second-to-last in OPS (.649) and runs per game (3.19). It would be nice to win on a day when Franco goes deep in the ninth in the other team’s park, but, again, little things bring this team down and it’s happened a lot lately. The Phillies have lost 15 of their last 19 games.
Included in those 15 losses are 11 to the two best teams in the National League — the Cubs and Nationals. The Phils were 1-5 against the Cubs and 0-6 against the Nats. Those teams are in it to win the World Series; the Phillies are rebuilding. There is a huge gap in talent between the World Series hopefuls and the Phillies. These last few weeks have illustrated that.
“They’re better teams than we are right now,” Mackanin said. “We have to improve our offense. Our pitching has to stabilize. And we can’t afford to make mistakes. Our offense, obviously, is a big issue. We have to score more runs. In these tight games, you’re not allowed to make mistakes like we did in the ninth inning.”