PHILADELPHIA — At 3:40 Thursday afternoon, Manager Jim Riggleman and hitting coach Rick Eckstein called every hitter in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse into Riggleman’s office. They closed the door. Riggleman and Eckstein spoke first. A few players followed. “All positive,” one player said later.
“Usually,” Riggleman said, “you like to have those meetings when you’re facing an emergency starter or something.” Riggleman had called his meeting hours before his team faced Roy Halladay, “the best pitcher “I’ve ever faced,” said Jerry Hairston, who has faced 826 of them.
In a 7-3 loss that sealed a sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals’ bats showed signs of life against one of baseball’s best starters, but the typically reliable half of their equation betrayed them. John Lannan lasted two-plus innings and allowed six earned runs, becoming the first Nationals starter this year to pitch fewer than five innings and continuing his misery against the Phillies.
The Nationals entered Philadelphia at .500 for the season before their three-game stay at Citizens Bank Park, as it tends to do, resulted in ruin. They’ve lost five straight against the Phillies this year, seven straight in Philly since last season and 56 of 78 dating from the start of 2007.
Lannan has endured the sting from many of those losses. In 13 starts against the Phillies, Lannan is 0-10 with a 6.44 ERA. He is 30-32 with a 3.87 against everyone else — add in the Phillies starts, and his career ERA is 4.16. The Nationals won the first time Lannan started against the Phillies, when, in his major league debut, he was ejected in the fifth inning. The Nationals have lost all 12 of his starts against the Phillies since.
“I don’t have any explanation,” Riggleman said. “They just see him good or something. As much as he’s going to see the Phillies in this division, we just got to do better than that.”
Thursday night, before a crowd of 45,316, Lannan didn’t allow a run in the first two innings, stranding a pair of runners to end the second. But he could sense his pitches starting to stay up in the zone, a trend he couldn’t curtail. The first six batters he faced in the third reached base, including a home run by Shane Victorino and doubles by John Mayberry Jr. and Raul Ibanez. Lannan was done, headed for another early shower here, the second-shortest outing of his career complete.
Lannan mostly shrugged when asked about his problems against the Phillies, and said he does not feel bothered facing them.
“Maybe a couple years ago, it probably did, but not anymore,” Lannan said. “There’s nothing really that should be different, and I don’t feel different coming into these games. Just so happened that they caught me in a day when I didn’t make pitches.”
The Nationals entered the game more concerned about their hitting, which had sunk toward the bottom of the league in most every significant category.
“We just wanted to get all of hitters together and get with Rick and myself and let them know the confidence level we have in them,” Riggleman said of the pregame meeting. “Just keep pushing, doing all the little things that we do defensively, running the bases, all that kind of stuff. Let’s get it going offensively, but in the meantime, let’s go win a ballgame.”
Given the degree of difficulty Halladay presents, the Nationals took at least a small step forward before settling back into their familiar malaise. They produced six hits against Halladay in the first four innings, scoring two runs in the fourth. Jayson Werth singled to lead off the inning, and he would score on Wilson Ramos’s RBI single.
Hairston followed with an epic at-bat, fouling off eight pitches before rolling the 13th pitch he saw into right field for another single. Ian Desmond drove in the Nationals’ second run with a sacrifice fly to center. From there, though, Halladay dominated. He retired the final 11 batters he faced and struck out 10 in seven innings.
The Nationals ratcheted his pitch count enough to force him out of the game after the seventh and 110 pitches. They tacked on a run with Werth’s sacrifice fly off reliever Antonio Bastardo, scant solace for an offense scoring 3.6 runs per game, 26th in the majors.
The Nationals knew their meeting would not be an elixir for their issues, at least not Thursday. “There’s no magic to facing Roy,” Riggleman said. The Nationals manager wanted to encourage his team, a feeling they will have to try to carry with them on the plane ride to Florida, where another National League East contender awaits.
“We can’t do nothing about what happened the last three days,” Hairston said. “We just got to play good baseball.”