PHILADELPHIA — They were tearing the cover off the ball, getting production from up and down their lineup and finally putting to rest any doubt about their ability to score enough runs to win games on a regular basis.
And then they arrived at Citizens Bank Park this week, and now the Nationals seem to be right back where they started.
Back-to-back losses to the Phillies, including Tuesday night's 4-2 defeat, have pretty much killed whatever positive momentum the Nationals had developed during a four-game winning streak. More troubling is the feast-or-famine nature of their offensive output.
Behold the Nationals' run totals for each of the last 10 days: 13, 10, 0, 1, 8, 8, 5, 11, 2, 2. Officially, they've averaged six runs per game during this stretch, but that's an awfully misleading stat.
"We'll get into a game and we'll be in the sixth, seventh inning with two or three hits," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Where the night before we had 15 hits. I can't explain it. It's one of those things you try to go out and get 15 hits before you get the first one. And nothing good happens."
Nothing good has happened to the Nationals through the first two games of this four-game series. After arriving in town flying high after a sweep of the Padres, they've dropped two straight to the Phillies by slim margins of 3-2 and 4-2.
The pitching wasn't lights-out, but it was good enough to give the lineup a chance to win each game. That lineup, though, was shut down for eight innings by left-hander John Lannan on Monday and was shut down for eight innings by left-hander Cole Hamels on Tuesday, continuing a disturbing trend.
The Nationals are now batting a collective .215 against lefties, worst in the majors, much to the befuddlement of their manager.
"I don't know," Davey Johnson said. "I made my living off left-handers late in my career. I liked them. For some reason or another, we get them in a jam, we don't get the hit."
The Nationals had Hamels in a jam only once on Tuesday, but it was a big jam at a crucial moment in the game. Trailing 4-1 in the eighth, they got back-to-back singles from Scott Hairston and Ian Desmond and a walk by Bryce Harper, loading the bases with one out and bringing Charlie Manuel to the mound.
The Phillies manager figured to be taking the ball from his starter and summoning a right-hander to face Ryan Zimmerman with the game now on the line. But Manuel surprised everyone by leaving Hamels in, eliciting a roar from the crowd of 33,502.
Hamels immediately got ahead of Zimmerman with a first-pitch fastball at the knees, called a strike by plate umpire Vic Carapazza.
"It's tough when you get behind 0-1," Zimmerman said. "I mean, 1-0 vs. 0-1 is a huge difference in that situation."
Even so, the Nationals cleanup hitter was kicking himself for fouling off Hamels' next pitch: a fastball down the middle. He then swung through a 92 mph fastball up and out of the zone, completing a three-pitch strikeout.
"I can't blame anyone but myself," Zimmerman said. "I had a good pitch to hit."
With two outs on the board, the pressure now shifted to Jayson Werth, who homered earlier in the evening for the Nationals' lone run to that point. Werth, too, fell behind 0-2, the second pitch a high strike called by Carapazza. He did battle his way to a full count, then just got under Hamels' 3-2 offering, sending a flyball to the warning track in center that was hauled in by Ben Revere to end the inning.
"We had the right guys in there," Johnson said. "Just didn't get it done."
Werth did not make himself available to reporters in the clubhouse after the game.
The Nationals tried to mount one final rally against Phillies left-hander Antonio Bastardo in the ninth, getting a two-out, RBI double from Wilson Ramos to trim the deficit to 4-2. But Hairston, representing the tying run, popped out to end the game and leave Taylor Jordan suffering the loss.
Jordan once again flashed some potential in his third career start, though he remains winless in part because he has struggled to get through an opposing lineup the third time. His defense hasn't helped him, either.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, the game tied 1-1 at that point, Jordan gave up two quick singles but then got Chase Utley to rap a grounder to first base. The rookie had already induced three double plays and he figured he was about to get his fourth.
"That was perfect," he said. "What I wanted to do: Weak groundball."
LaRoche fielded it and fired to Desmond, covering second base. But Jimmy Rollins, sensing the throw behind him, veered off course just enough to get in the way of the throw, the ball glancing off him and scooting past Desmond into shallow left field for a costly error that gave the Phillies the lead. Two batters later, Michael Young roped a two-run double, increasing the deficit for the Nationals and ending Jordan's night on a sour note.
"I had a window," LaRoche said. "And as soon as I threw it, he kinda veered out and just blocked Desi for a split second."
Those kind of little mistakes might not matter if you can count on your lineup to produce more than two runs on a given night. But the Nationals never know what to expect from their lineup these days.
One night, that group looks as fearsome as any in the majors. The next, it looks as feeble as any.
"You wish it wasn't that way," Zimmerman said. "But as far as all year, we've been inconsistent. That's just the way it's been. I wish I had an answer."