PHILADELPHIA — If and when the Nationals officially are eliminated from the playoff race later this month — and "when" is looking more and more likely than "if" at the moment — they may be tempted to harken back to their toughest losses of the season, the ones that they just knew would come back to haunt them at season's end.
When that happens, the Nationals almost certainly will recall Monday night's 3-2 loss to the Phillies, a game that was there for the taking and then slipped away in demoralizing fashion.
"It's a stab in the heart," manager Davey Johnson said. "We've got to win these games."
The Nationals took the field at Citizens Bank Park knowing they needed to win their series opener against Philadelphia in order to keep pace with the Reds, victorious earlier in the day. And they put themselves in position to do it, scratching out the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth and then handing the ball to their most-trusted reliever.
But Tyler Clippard, who had been scored upon in only 10 of his previous 61 appearances this season, allowed the tying and eventual winning runs to score during a two-out rally that left the Nationals dazed and now staring at a 7 1/2-game deficit for the NL's final Wild Card berth with only 25 to play.
At 69-68, they would need to go 21-4 to reach 90 wins.
"It's never easy, man," Clippard said. "You could go 40 scoreless and give it up one night, it's never easy. Losing sucks."
A tight pitchers' duel between Stephen Strasburg and Cole Hamels was handed over to the respective bullpens late, the game knotted 1-1 as the eighth inning arrived. The Nationals' subsequent rally was hardly a thing of beauty, but it was effective in plating the go-ahead run.
A single by Anthony Rendon and a walk drawn by Chad Tracy put two on with one out for Bryce Harper. Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg summoned left-hander Cesar Jimenez from the bullpen, but Harper battled his way to a five-pitch walk, loading the bases for Scott Hairston.
Hairston lofted a flyball to shallow left-center, not deep enough to guarantee Rendon would score the run from third, but converted infielder Cesar Hernandez didn't come close to throwing him out, so Rendon scampered home to give the Nationals a 2-1 lead.
Johnson entrusted that lead to Clippard, and why not? The right-hander has been among the most-effective relievers in baseball this season, certainly the Nationals' most-consistent arm out of the bullpen. And Clippard was on the verge of a 1-2-3 inning, getting two quick outs and then getting ahead 1-2 to Hernandez, a rookie with zero walks in 30 career plate appearances prior to that point.
Clippard, though, couldn't finish it off. He fired three straight fastballs out of the zone to Hernandez, prolonging the inning and tempting fate.
"That was the biggest mistake I made in the inning, that walk and not going after him," Clippard said. "I felt like I made a good pitch 3-2; it was obviously down, but I didn't challenge him like I should've. I got ahead of him, didn't put him away, and that was the difference."
Jimmy Rollins ensured that would be the difference by fouling off five pitches during the next at-bat, finally drilling an RBI double off the wall in right-center to tie the game 2-2. After an intentional walk to Chase Utley, Clippard served up another two-out hit, this time a single to left by Carlos Ruiz.
The Nationals' only hope of keeping the game tied rested on the right arm of Harper, who appeared hobbled all evening and indeed has been dealing with a bad hip, as Johnson later revealed. Whether the injury had any effect on Harper's throw is debatable, but the heave was slightly off-line, forcing Wilson Ramos to take a step to his left to make the one-hop snag. Rollins slid headfirst in the opposite direction and managed to sneak his left hand across the plate before Ramos could apply the tag.
"Jimmy can run a little bit," Harper said. "He can still run. I thought I had a good opportunity to throw him out, but it didn't happen."
Now trailing by a run, the Nationals were forced to rally in the ninth against Jonathan Papelbon. They certainly gave themselves a chance, getting back-to-back, one-out singles from Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche (who snapped an 0-for-18 slump).
The tying run now on third base with one out, Ramos stepped to the plate knowing he merely needed to get the ball out of the infield. He couldn't even make contact. Despite getting ahead in the count, 2-0, Ramos swung and missed a low-and-outside slider, then took two straight fastballs for strikes: one well inside, one clearly outside, though both called strikes by umpire Jerry Meals (who employed an oversized zone all night).
Ramos had words for Meals before trudging back to the dugout.
"He did call the low pitch all night, so I don't have any complaints," Johnson said. "He was just calling a pretty generous strike zone."
The Nationals had one final hope in Rendon, but the rookie likewise struck out, stranding the tying runner on third and leaving his team to contemplate yet another crushing loss at a most inopportune moment.
"We know we've got to win these games," Clippard said. "It was a battle of the bullpens, and we feel like we should win those matchups. All that compounded makes that tough."