Nationals can’t dig out of early hole in 6-3 loss to Phillies

Magic number for NL East title remains at 5

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PHILADELPHIA — Everything the Washington Nationals have been working toward this season is in front of them. The National League East crown, a ticket into the National League Division Series, forgetting about the possibility of playing a one-game playoff, it’s all theirs for the taking.

All they have to do is win.

On Tuesday night, against the team that’s been their nemesis for so many years, they couldn’t do that. Their 6-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies pushed the Nationals’ chance of clinching the division crown to Friday at the earliest, when they’ll open a series in St. Louis against the Cardinals. A chance at showering in champagne in what had served often as their house of horrors left the ballpark about the same time as three Phillies home runs.

“It could’ve been a big step,” said left-hander Ross Detwiler, the victim of two of those homers during a miserable stretch of eight batters that defined his night. “We could’ve celebrated on their field like they have on our field. And I didn’t let that happen.”

Citizens Bank Park is a bandbox. A place where home runs come in fistfuls and more balls have soared out of than all but three other ballparks in the National League this season. But it was only the Phillies, winners of six of their last seven against the Nationals, who pulled off the feat Tuesday night — leaving Detwiler disconsolate, pondering what could have been.

“You take a lot of pride getting a win down the stretch like this,” Detwiler said, calling his five-inning, five-run performance “embarrassing,” and saying the loss was “completely on me.”

A few hundred miles to the south, the Atlanta Braves were staging a comeback. A playoff-clinching, champagne-soaked walkoff victory that cut the Nationals' lead in the National League East to four and held their magic number firm at five with eight games to play.

“That sounds about right,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “All year long, we’ve won, they’ve won, we’ve won, they’ve won. For them to get one up on us today, it’s no big deal. We’ve still got eight games to go and I think we feel pretty good about ourselves.”

“Just got to win tomorrow,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “We lost a battle today, we’ve got to win a battle tomorrow. We want to win the war.”

Tuesday night’s battle was indeed lost. Lost on the back of the Nationals’ often-stellar pitching with Detwiler’s highest earned-run total since May. Lost with three home-run swings, including two served up by Detwiler and one on the first pitch by his replacement, Craig Stammen, that lit up the box score and dug the Nationals’ hole ever-deeper.

But it was walks that killed them.

Ross Detwiler was strong for four of the five innings he pitched, including retiring the final nine batters he faced. But a third-inning blip in which he walked the first two batters and then gave up a run-scoring single to Ryan Howard, followed by a three-run homer to Carlos Ruiz, defined his night.

It was a confounding loss of command for Detwiler and, traced back to the end of the second inning, featured three walks in a span of four batters. He couldn’t get his fastball over to get ahead, and when he was behind it was more difficult for him to throw his offspeed pitches. Just 18 of his 84 pitches were non-fastballs.

“He’s got such a good fastball and sometimes he just gets stubborn and doesn’t pitch,” Johnson said. “He just throws. … He’s got a great fastball but he’s also got a good changeup and good curveball. He’s got to learn to pitch with them instead of just trying to overthrow.”

“The focus was a little gone,” Detwiler said. “It’s something that can’t happen, especially at this level and in games down the stretch that we’re trying to win.

“The worst part about it was our team came back the next couple innings, fought back, and we had a good chance to win that game. I put us in a bad situation.”

The Nationals walked five Phillies batters on the night, including two in front of run-scoring hits in the third inning and two to load the bases in the sixth. But ultimately it was the home runs, one to rookie Darin Ruf, who faced Detwiler in college but had never started a major league game in his life — and never had a big-league hit — along with the one to Ruiz that cost the Nationals the win. Stammen’s first-pitch bomb to Domonic Brown didn’t help.

Neither did an offensive effort that struggled to gain ground all evening, despite chipping away at Cole Hamels for three runs in five innings and sending his pitch count to 99 with a two-run fifth that cut the Phillies‘ lead to 5-3. Kurt Suzuki was 3-for-4, Bryce Harper was 2-for-4, but they led an attack that fizzled after the fifth.

Five relievers combined to hold the Nationals scoreless over the final four innings, including five strikeouts, one hit, and Jonathan Papelbon’s 37th save of the season.

“All year long we haven’t liked losing,” Desmond said. “I think that’s how we got in the position we’re in now. But we’ve played well to this point. We’ve been swinging the bats well and playing well, I think today was just one of those lull games.”

So they left Citizens Bank Park late Tuesday night knowing what they’ve known for weeks. Months even. All they have to do is win.

“I think the worst thing you can do is look at the standings,” Suzuki said. “A loss is a loss. Losses always hurt, but it’s just one of those games. Put it behind you, look forward to tomorrow and give us a chance to win the series.”

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