WASHINGTON — It was three outs from being the Phillies' most inspiring victory so far this season.
Instead, it turned into a punch to their collective gut.
After having survived 15 strikeouts against Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer and rope-a-doping the two-time defending Cy Young Award winner into a seventh-inning exit, the Phillies were done in by their bullpen Sunday. Luis Garcia and Tommy Hunter combined to allow two runs in the eighth inning, closer Hector Neris gave up two in the ninth and the Phils trudged off the field with a 5-4 loss before an announced crowd of 30,611 at Nationals Park.
Say goodbye to the prospect of a .500 record on the six-game road trip after dropping the first two games in Miami. And so much for moving into a first-place tie with the Atlanta Braves, who lost Sunday at home to the San Francisco Giants. Those possibilities went up in smoke with Wilmer Difo's bases-loaded single to center field against Neris in the ninth inning to score Howie Kendrick from third base.
"Our bullpen should come in and throw strikes to the best of their ability. That's one thing that they know they have to do," said manager Gabe Kapler, appearing as frustrated as he has been after a game. "It didn't happen today."
Neris didn't feel like talking about it. Through a team translator, he deferred comment until Monday when the team returns to Citizens Bank Park to open a seven-game homestand.
Really, though, there wasn't much to say. Neris, who converted 26 of his last 27 save opportunities dating to last season, faced five batters, all of whom reached base. He threw 19 pitches, only seven of which landed for strikes. He gave up a leadoff single to Matt Wieters, made an errant throw on a pickoff attempt, hit a batter and walked two others.
At no point, though, did Kapler consider taking him out of the game, especially since the Phillies had already used four other relievers and had only Yacksel Rios and lefty Zac Curtis left in the bullpen.
"Those were Hector's outs," Kapler said. "He's the one that we want getting those big outs for us."
But Neris walked Pedro Severino to force in the tying run. With no outs, Kapler brought Scott Kingery in from right field to be a fifth infielder and increase the odds of cutting down a run at the plate on a ground ball. But Difo's line-drive single to center assured the Phillies wouldn't get that chance.
Until then, the story had been the way the Phillies outlasted Scherzer.
Scherzer looms over everything at Nationals Park. A poster bearing his likeness hangs in front of a garage in center field. His two different-colored eyes form an intimidating sign in right field. And for six innings, he threw blazing fastballs, hard sliders to righties, nasty cutters to lefties, bat-slowing change-ups and the occasional curve. He punched out everyone in the Phillies' lineup save Maikel Franco, at one point whiffing seven in a row.
But as overpowering as Scherzer was, the Phillies made him work. Franco grinded out a nine-pitch at-bat in the second inning. Florimon had a pair of seven-pitch at-bats, both ending in strikeouts. Scherzer threw 25 pitches in the fourth inning alone, and by the time he walked to the mound to begin the seventh, his pitch count was at 104.
"With those guys that's what you have to do," left fielder Rhys Hoskins said. "I think the [last] third of an inning you could tell he wasn't as sharp."
Indeed, Florimon opened the seventh inning with a single, stole second and scored two batters later on Williams' pinch single. The Phillies ran the lead to 4-1, then put the game in the hands of a bullpen that has been lights out for most of the first 33 games.
"It sucks to lose this game," Arrieta said. "But this kind of stuff happens."
Neris just picked a bad time for it.