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Nationals left scratching their heads after latest loss to Phillies

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Ryan Zimmerman strode to the plate to an ovation louder than any other heard at Nationals Park on Wednesday night.

His sore back had kept him out of the starting lineup for two straight days, but in the eighth inning in a one-run game, there he was. The man who's earned the nickname "Mr. Walk-off" over the course of the years, when clutch hit after clutch hit became not just a moment to delight in but an expectation. The roars were acknowledgement of such history.

When it was over, though, and the Nationals' 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies marked their first series loss of the second half, Zimmerman's presence, despite a single, represented only another moment in which the Nationals came up just short.

Zimmerman was caught trying to steal to end the eighth. Edwin Jackson was thrown out at the plate to end the second inning. Phillies starter Vance Worley provided ample opportunity for the Nationals to pounce, but they couldn't.

Danny Espinosa connected so flush with a Jonathan Papelbon fastball in the ninth it seemed sure to be a game-tying solo-shot, until it fell into left fielder Domonic Brown's glove on the warning track.

"I couldn't hit that ball any better," Espinosa said, sitting seemingly stunned in front of his locker in the clubhouse.

The Nats were never truly out of it, despite a three-homer barrage off Jackson — all solo shots — that included two out of leadoff man Jimmy Rollins. At least one baserunner reached in five of the nine innings and in a noisy first, five straight got on base and two scored.

None of it was enough.

"Tonight it seemed like every time I got ahead, I couldn't put a guy away," Worley said. "I'm just glad they got themselves out. They want to get themselves out, that's fine with me."

"We all got pitches to hit," said first baseman Adam LaRoche. "And we didn't do it for the most part. ... He gave us all pitches to hit. Whether he was leaving them out over the plate or leaving them up in the zone, give him credit. We didn't do anything with it."

Nationals manager Davey Johnson sat down for his post-game press conference, looked at a room full of reporters and tried to explain away his team's second straight loss. "That was a weird one," he said.

"I thought we hit the ball decent," he said. "Got a couple guys thrown out and maybe took a little air out of us, but we've been a little flat since our Sunday in Milwaukee."

Zimmerman getting thrown with two outs trying steal second was one of those instances.

The third baseman, who expects to be back in the lineup on Thursday, singled. With the Phillies' last lefty in the bullpen brought in to face LaRoche, third base coach Bo Porter relayed the steal sign. The idea was if Zimmerman made it, great, he'd be in scoring position. If not, their slugging lefty first baseman would lead off the ninth against a right-handed reliever.

"It's a risk," Zimmerman said. "If I make it, it helps us. I wasn't trying to get out, but if we get out, he's leading off against a righty and has a lot better chance to do some damage."

For Jackson, it was the location of three pitches that cost him. Two to Rollins, one to Nate Schierholtz — all three essentially over the middle of the plate. The contact they made off him was so solid the right-hander wondered if he was tipping his pitches, an issue he'd had before he joined the Nationals this past offseason. Upon replay, though, that theory was shot down.

"I thought it was a possibility," Jackson said. "But going back and looking at it, I mean ... I just got hurt on balls up in the zone."

The only solace in a quiet clubhouse was that the Atlanta Braves, hot on the Nationals' tail in the National League East, also lost to keep Washington's 2 ½ game lead intact. 

"I don't see anybody deflated in here," LaRoche said. "I look up and we're still in first place. I think guys realize that. So we keep playing. These little skids happen where things don't go our way. For the most part this year, we've had some pretty good luck and we've come up big. It's a long season. Keep grinding it out.

"And when we get on a roll, like we were last week [six wins in a row], you just try to keep it going as long as you can."

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