WASHINGTON - In the bottom of the eighth inning last night, Carlos Ruiz dropped from his crouch behind home plate and knelt on the ground in obvious pain. Head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan jogged from the visitor's dugout and bent down to speak to the Phillies catcher. The conversation quickly eliminated any concern, and play soon resumed.
Asked about it later, Charlie Manuel tendered an explanation that resonated with the mostly male population that filled his office.
"He got hit in the crystals," the manager said. "That hurts."
The same could be said of the entire team last night, when Cliff Lee allowed six runs in 5 innings and the Phillies finished with their most lopsided loss to the Nationals since the woeful franchise moved south to Washington in 2005. The final margin was 10-2, and it was an honest one: The Nationals did most of their damage against the Phillies' high-priced offseason acquisition, scoring five runs in a third inning that featured a three-run homer by young second baseman Danny Espinosa. Espinosa, who entered the night hitting .205 with eight home runs and a .723 OPS, added a solo shot in sixth inning, hastening Lee's earliest exit since his second start of the season.
"It basically boiled down to Espinosa hitting two home runs, two big home runs," said Lee, who fell to 4-5 with a 3.94 ERA in his 12th start of the season. "Have to give him some credit there, but the first one, a changeup, first pitch, it was a little bit up, but he put a good swing on it and hit a home run. The second one was a 3-1 fastball away, and he put a good swing on that one, too. Take that away and it's a different game. But obviously you can't do that."
It has been an interesting season thus far for Lee. Of the 35 runs he has allowed, 12 have come in two starts, and 11 of those have come in three innings: the third last night, and the second and fourth innings of a 6-3 loss to Atlanta on April 8. He walked three batters last night to run his season total to 19, one more than he walked all of last year.
All that being said, the Phillies have not witnessed anything that they were not aware of before signing Lee to a 5-year, $120 million contract this offseason. In 2009, he allowed at least five runs in four of the 12 starts he made after they acquired him from the Indians. In seven of the other eight starts, he allowed two or fewer runs.
Lee is the Reggie Miller of pitchers, an athlete who relies heavily on tempo and feel, and whose streaks of pure dominance are sometimes pocked with streaks of the opposite. After allowing six runs in 3 innings of the aforementioned start against the Braves, he logged 56 innings with a 2.56 ERA in his next eight starts. He allowed four runs in eight innings of a win over the Reds on May 26, then struggled last night.
"He didn't have his command. He made some bad pitches up. It's just one of those nights, one of those nights where they hit the ball good. He'll get it going. He'll get going," Manuel said. "When his stuff is good and he's on, he'll get going. He's in a little funk, but he'll be all right."
The Phillies' offense did not do much to climb out of the early hole. Aside from rookie rightfielder Domonic Brown, who went 2-for-4 with a double and his first home run of the season, there was little production.
The Nationals' eight-run margin was their largest against the Phillies since leaving Montreal in 2005: The Expos beat the Philllies by 12-1 in 2003.
The result was a loss that dropped the Phillies to 34-21, with an afternoon game today that marks the end of a stretch of 20 straight games without a day off.
"I wish we didn't have any days off, but I don't play every day," Lee said. "I don't like off days."