WASHINGTON — Roman Quinn walked slowly through the infield on Wednesday night as Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams ambled behind. Maikel Franco stopped a few feet ahead with his cap lifted and his hand to his head. Gabe Kapler stood at the top of the dugout step before, watched the Nationals empty their Gatorade cooler onto home plate, and then retreated to the clubhouse.
The Phillies had lost their fourth-straight game but this on – an 8-7 loss to Washington – was perhaps the most crushing of the season. Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run, walk-off homer off Seranthony Dominguez, who blew his third save this month. Dominguez retired the first two batters he faced as Wednesday began to look like a signature win, one the Phillies could cling to as they try to chase down the first-place Braves. But in an instant, it became a crushing walk and a sad march to the dugout.
They trail the Braves by three games as the Phils face their biggest deficit since June. The Phillies will lean Thursday on Aaron Nola, but they will have to get past Max Scherzer if they are to avoid a sweep. A night like Wednesday seems to be the type that can spiral a season. And it was the type of loss that could cause a manager to worry.
"I'll just be completely straightforward: I don't worry," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler countered. "I'm not concerned about our club. I know that we have issues. I know that we are imperfect. But I don't worry about a four-game stretch. I don't worry about a 10-game stretch. I and we pay attention to the ways we can move the ball forward, the ways that we can take small steps forward, the ways we can control and impact the game. It doesn't make sense for us to harp on some of the things that have happened over the last couple of days. What makes sense for us is to keep our chins up, put our chests out and get ready for tomorrow against the Nationals."
Trouble seemed near in the ninth inning when Juan Soto ripped a two-out double off Dominguez down the right-field line. The rookie then tried to fool Zimmerman with sliders, but the veteran did not bite. Dominguez fell behind in the count and threw a fastball that missed its mark. Zimmerman didn't miss and crushed the fastball to right field. He raised his hands as he rounded first base but the umpires were unsure the ball cleared the fence. They reviewed the play and the Phillies turned to the scoreboard to see the replay. The game was over.
"The ball hasn't bounced our way very often the last week," Rhys Hoskins said. "Obviously tonight is rough. You never want to lose a game at all, let alone lose like that. But I think the sense in this clubhouse is that there is no panic. We're young. A lot of us haven't been here before, but the veteran guys in this clubhouse, the guys with experience, the guys that have been through this before have just stressed to stay the course. There's no need to change much. We got to where we were by trusting our work, trusting our preparation. So I think as long as there's no panic – I don't think anybody's hitting the panic button – I think we're going to be OK."
The bottom of the ninth may have went differently if the top of the ninth had a different outcome. The Phillies loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but came up empty. Asdrubal Cabrera popped up and Justin Bour struck out. The Phils had a chance to put the Nats away. Instead, they provided life. An inning earlier, Pat Neshek allowed a leadoff triple to Wilmer Difo, who smashed a fly ball over the head of Williams. Difo scored on a sacrifice fly and the Phillies' lead was trimmed to just one.
Hoskins said he was still confident after the Phillies left the bases loaded because he knew Dominguez would be jogging in from the bullpen. He has "some of the best stuff in the league," Hoskins said. But Dominguez has looked human as the season hits the final stride. He has allowed five runs in his last 61/3 innings as August has yielded quite different results from his first three months in the majors. His velocity is not a problem as his fastball averaged 98.8 miles per hour on Thursday. But it is his location. He wanted to throw his fastball low and away. The pitch instead sailed upward and sat over the middle of the plate.
"Based on the results, I know that I don't look the same. But I feel the same," Dominguez said. "I don't think anything has changed. I'm going to keep working hard and only God knows what's ahead so I'm just going to keep doing my work."
The collapse spoiled a night where the lineup finally showed some life. Justin Bour and Maikel Franco homered early in the game as they scored five runs in four innings off Stephen Strasburg. Carlos Santana came off the bench to stroke a go-ahead double. Bour, who started at first over Santana, hit an RBI double in the first and a two-out homer in the third. Santana's last game with multiple extra-base hits came on May 13. It will be interesting to see how Kapler balances the playing time at first base.
Zach Eflin recorded just 10 outs as he failed to hold a 4-1 lead and a 5-4 lead before being pulled in the fourth inning. He allowed five runs, struck out two and walked two. The heart of Washington's order — Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto — feasted on him as they combined to go 5-for-7 with a walk and two extra-base hits.
Eflin had logged three straight strong starts and this clunker came after a strange optioning to the minor leagues. Perhaps he was due for a letdown. The bullpen provided immediate relief. Hector Neris inherited runners on first and third with one out in the fourth. He retired two straight to escape and then stayed on for a perfect fifth. Tommy Hunter added two scoreless innings. The Phillies, Kapler said, felt like they were positioned to win the game. But that position was lost.