PHILADELPHIA — The past two weeks had conditioned the Washington Nationals to seek superstition through any means. And so, as the top of the ninth inning unfolded Monday night, Wilson Ramos turned to Doug Fister in the dugout and stuffed chewing tobacco in his lip. Down two runs in the last at-bat? Ramos had a ready-made, semi-illicit omen in his back pocket.
“Every time I get a chew, we make a rally,” Ramos said later. “I call it a Rally Chew. I tried to make a rally.”
After a nine-win homestand sprinkled with fairy dust, the Nationals nearly conjured more magic in a 3-2 loss at hollowed-out Citizens Bank Park. Ramos blasted a solo home run off closer Jonathan Papelbon with two outs in the ninth inning, but after Asdrubal Cabrera’s pinch-hit single the rally fizzled. Faulty execution in key moments and A.J. Burnett’s dominance put the Nationals in a hole, but they nearly climbed out in the ninth.
“A two-run difference is not a big difference,” Ramos said. “We can come back.”
The Nationals ground through at-bats and played crisp games during their recent streak. Monday, they lacked that sharp edge. In the seventh and eighth, a Nationals hitter led off with a double and never advanced to third base. Tanner Roark allowed just two runs in six innings, but it could have been one if not for a near-miss defensive play. Manager Matt Williams entrusted Jerry Blevins with a one-run deficit in the seventh, and he yielded a home run to Carlos Ruiz.
A late-summer night once turned Citizens Bank Park into a beacon, a stadium that pulled fans from down Broad Street like a magnet. At first pitch Monday night, empty seats populated every nook of the place. They don’t call Washington’s park Citizens Bank South anymore.
They don’t even fill Citizens Bank North.
The Phillies may be a husk of what they once were, but Monday night Burnett dazzled, no matter the 58-72 team and swaths of blue plastic behind him. He struck out 12 Nationals in seven innings. He threw wicked two-seam fastballs that started out headed toward a left-hander’s belt and darted over the inside corner. He reached back for 94-mph fastballs when he needed. He twirled a nasty knuckle-curve.
“When he wants it, he gets 95 in there,” outfielder Bryce Harper said. “And he’s got a great slider, curveball, he throws from all angles. He knows how to pitch.”
Anthony Rendon pierced Burnett in the sixth inning. With one out and the Nationals trailing 2-0, Rendon smashed a first-pitch sinker down the left field line, just over the seats for his 17th homer of the season. As Rendon circled the bases, a fan chucked the ball into the outfield. The crowd emitted a wan cheer as the ball trickled.
The Nationals had sliced the Phillies’ lead in half.
In the seventh, the Nationals received, and rapidly squandered, an opportunity to tie the score. Ian Desmond led off with a double to left field off Domonic Brown’s glove. Harper had the first chance against Burnett, and he could not push Desmond to third, lofting a first-pitch fastball to left field.
Williams said Harper tried to hit a grounder to the right side, but just got beat.
“We want Harp to hit the ball to the right side,” Williams said. “He was late on a fastball and hit it in the air to left. The objective there is to hit the ball on the ground, to his pull-side, worst-case scenario. But he was just late on a heater. We were looking at Harp behind up there and pulling a ball, and he just didn’t get it done.”
Harper had a grander idea.
“I mean, he gave me a pitch I could actually hammer a little bit,” Harper said. “I think I just missed that pitch from putting it about 10 rows deep. I wish I could’ve got him over on that, but I saw a pitch I could drive and I tried to drive it out of the ballpark.”
Ramos flared to right, and Danny Espinosa ended the inning with a popup to center field. Three pitches, three flyouts, and Desmond never advanced a base.
The Nationals still trailed by one entering the seventh, a high-leverage situation even if they were not protecting a lead. Williams had used the back of his bullpen extensively during the Nationals’ homestand. Brown, a left-hander, was leading off the inning, but right-handed hitting Ruiz followed. Choosing which pitcher to summon from the bullpen was not an easy decision. Williams called on Blevins.
“We’ve gone to the well quite a bit with our back-end guys,” Williams said. “What we can’t do is pitch them every day. And Matt Thornton’s been up and in games and hot a lot lately, as well. So we went to Blev.”
Blevins retired Brown when he slid past second base trying to turn a bloop single into a double. The hard part came next. Blevins entered allowing left-handed hitters a .146 average, but right-handers had hit .308 against him, a problem he never had before this season.
Blevins fell behind Ruiz with three straight balls, and he left a 3-2 sinker up. Ruiz blasted it into the left field seats, and the Phillies padded their lead.
“Track record shows that I’m better than what’s going on out there,” Blevins said. “I don’t feel like I’m pitching as bad as it looks. I feel good out there. I feel like I’m pitching well. You don’t worry about track record. You worry about what you’re going to do today. I’ll go back out there. And if my number is called, I’ll execute. “
Williams did not regret letting Blevins face Ruiz, in large part because he felt he had no choice but to keep oft-worked Drew Storen and Thornton fresh.
“Other than that one pitch, he pitched perfectly fine in that inning,” Williams said. “But, yeah, those back-end guys can’t pitch every day. So we’re mindful of that and mindful of their load. Everybody’s a big-league pitcher and everybody can get outs.”
The run Blevins allowed would haunt the Nationals. In the ninth, Ramos walked to the plate with two outs, thinking about a single after an 0-for-3 night. He laced a line drive over the right field fence, cutting the Nationals’ deficit to 3-2. Cabrera, out of the starting lineup with tightness in his right side, came off the bench and whacked a single to right. Pinch hitter Nate Schieroltz smoked a grounder, but right at shortstop Jimmy Rollins to end the game.
“I tried to make a rally,” Ramos said, “but it was a little bit late.”