It’s still too soon, and there are too many games remaining on the schedule, to classify what happened Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park as a knockout blow.
But you didn’t have to look that closely either to notice that the Phillies are wobbling.
One out from a feel-good victory against the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Phillies endured yet another punch to the gut when closer Hector Neris allowed a two-run home run to Juan Soto in a 4-3 loss to the Washington Nationals.
Cue the boos, which were drowned out only by the postgame fireworks display.
“It’s tough. It’s tough, man,” said Aaron Nola, who delivered six strong innings in his fifth stellar start in a row. “Every game matters right now. It's not over yet. We all know that. There's a lot of talent. We all know that we're good enough to keep winning. I think things will start to click."
In the meantime, the Phillies lost for the 18th time in 28 games. Subtract the games against the dysfunctional New York Mets and they’re 4-17 since June 5. On May 25, the Phillies were 10 games ahead of the Nationals. Now they trail Washington by 2 1/2 games. And they also slipped a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the second National League wild-card spot.
Worst of all, the Phillies wasted a start from Nola, the only sure thing in their starting rotation. All that stands between them and getting swept by the Nationals in the first series out of the all-star break is Jake Arrieta, who will start Sunday despite having a bone spur floating in his right elbow.
All together now: Oof.
“You have Nola come out and have him give us a great start, you fully expect to win that game,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “When you score a couple runs off [Nationals starter Patrick] Corbin early, you feel confident that [a victory] would be the outcome in this game. You live and die with your horses, and we did.”
Indeed, the Phillies asked Neris to get a four-out save after an error by third baseman Maikel Franco led to lefty reliever Adam Morgan giving up an unearned run in the eighth inning. But Neris, so dominant for most of the season, blew a save for the third time in his last six opportunities.
After stranding both the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning, Neris blitzed through the first two batters in the ninth, retiring Trea Turner and Adam Eaton on a total of four pitches. But Anthony Rendon singled to left field before Soto ambushed a splitter -- Neris’ signature pitch -- and lasered the go-ahead homer out to left-center field.
“I threw the pitch and he got great contact with the pitch," Neris said. "In that moment, my favorite pitch, I have to throw that pitch. But I'll come in tomorrow.”
The Phillies put the tying run on second base in the bottom of the ninth against Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. Andrew Knapp, the .157-hitting backup catcher, put up a competitive at-bat before lining out to center field for the final out.
For the 33rd time in 92 games this season, the Phillies scored less than four runs. They have won only five of those games.
That they were even hanging on to a one-run lead by their eyelashes with two outs in the ninth inning was a credit to more than just Nola, who gave up one run in six innings.
Right fielder Bryce Harper made a throw from the warning track to third base, on a fly, to prevent Victor Robles from stretching a double into a triple in the second inning. In the fifth, center fielder Roman Quinn made a full-extension diving catch on the warning track in right-center to steal extra bases from Adam Eaton.
And Franco made a handful of solid plays at third base before booting a two-out grounder in the eighth that enabled Soto to score narrow the margin to 3-2.
Nola delivered once again. On a hot, sticky night at Citizens Bank Park, he overcame four walks and held the Nationals to one run on Robles’ RBI single in the sixth inning. With his pitch count climbing to 110, Nola struck out Yan Gomes to strand the tying run and complete six innings.
In his last five starts, Nola has given up three earned runs in 35 2/3 innings and slashed his earned-run average from 4.98 on June 15 to 3.63.
Ultimately, though, the Phillies threw it all away.
“I think it’s a tough stretch, and when you have tough stretches, you lose in various ways,” Kapler said. "We’re a better team than we’ve showed over the course of the last calendar month or more. I expect us to be better down the stretch. This is July 13. A lot of baseball left to be played.