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For Nats, it’s one step forward, two steps back in loss to Phillies

The Phillies' Jean Segura is doubled off first to end the top of the sixth inning after the Nationals’ Victor Robles made a leaping catch in center then whirled and threw a strike to Asdrúbal Cabrera for the final out. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals had struggled against Jake Arrieta, who was coasting when the sky darkened, then reddened, then showered Nationals Park with a passing storm Tuesday night. The rain was welcomed by the home team, just this once, because it chased Arrieta and gave the Nationals 12 outs against the worst bullpen in baseball. It was an invitation to stir some noise into an otherwise sleepy evening. It was life.

But the Nationals spit on the invitation. They fell to the Phillies, 8-3, slipping into last place in the National League East at 11-16. A 72-minute weather delay essentially cut the action in half. On the front end, Erick Fedde was tagged for four runs in five innings and the offense did little against Arrieta. On the back end, Washington was held down by Heath Hembree, Tommy Hunter, Héctor Neris, Adam Morgan and Blake Parker, the last four among the contributors to a historically bad start for Philadelphia’s relievers.

“I’m not really worried about that,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said of the standings, pointing to how close Washington is to a wild-card spot. “Just focused on playing better baseball in general.”

Before this series, the first between these teams in 2020, Washington’s past 11 results went like this: loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Manager Dave Martinez recently called it “seesaw baseball.”

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Yet the start, however jagged, however maddening some nights, has not buried the Nationals. After dropping three of five to the Miami Marlins, they were still just four games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves. The Phillies were, too, sitting a hair below Washington in the division standings.

This matchup was, more than anything, a battle for a grain of momentum. Each team needs all the traction it can get.

“It doesn’t seem like things are out of hand at all,” catcher Yan Gomes said Monday night, assessing whether the Nationals felt the necessary urgency for this point of the season. “There are maybe a couple teams that are doing well. Everybody else is just kind of grinding away. We’re a couple good series away from being right in the thick of things.”

So they had a chance to use the Phillies as a building block. They just couldn’t put the pieces together. They registered six hits aside from solo homers by Turner and Adam Eaton. Arrieta was greeted by Turner’s on the third pitch of the first inning. None of Turner’s 19 homers in 2019 landed to the right of straightaway center. Now, on top of his 11-game hitting streak, he has punched half of his six blasts to the opposite field.

But Arrieta was quick to settle in. Fedde, pitching opposite him, has embodied the Nationals’ hectic month. His first two starts came in place of the injured Stephen Strasburg. His third appearance, on Aug. 5, came when Max Scherzer was pulled after 27 pitches with a hamstring strain. For his fifth, on Aug. 14, he entered midway through the first when Strasburg had to exit with what was soon diagnosed as carpal tunnel neuritis of the right hand.

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Then Fedde waited 10 days for this start after his previous scheduled outing was rained out. He kept the Phillies scoreless in the first after their first two hitters reached base. A double play and flyball did the trick. He finished the second with another double play, starting it himself, and mostly kept the ball on the ground.

“When he’s throwing groundballs, that’s when I know he’s pitching really well,” Martinez said.

Fedde’s luck soon changed. Philadelphia had knotted the score on Andrew McCutchen’s RBI single in the third. Rhys Hoskins singled to put a pair on for Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto. And while Harper flied out, lending Fedde an exit strategy, Realmuto lifted a flyball that had Eaton scrambling to the right field wall.

Eaton jumped a few feet to the left, having misjudged the landing. The ball found the top of the wall, floated above it and, with Eaton unable to reach it, sunk into the Nationals’ bullpen. Fedde looked at the video board for a replay. So did Eaton, his jaw clenched and head shaking. The three-run shot gave the Phillies a 4-1 lead before the rain thickened.

“Off the bat I was like, ‘Okay, we’re out of he inning,’ ” Fedde recalled. “I think maybe even Realmuto thought that, too. I talked to the guys out in the bullpen, and they said the wind was swirling pretty good out there.”

The delay ended Fedde’s and Arrieta’s outings at five innings. When play resumed, Victor Robles jolted the Nationals with a crazy play in center. First, the 23-year-old made a running, leaping grab to rob Alec Bohm of extra bases. Then, with Jean Segura more than 90 feet from first, Robles chopped his feet, planted and unleashed a throw from just inside the warning track.

It reached Asdrúbal Cabrera without a bounce, and Segura was doubled off first to end the inning. There was banging from the dugout, some shouting, all hints of energy for a grasping club.

Eaton ripped a solo shot off Hembree in the bottom of the inning to slim the deficit. But in the seventh, the Phillies restored their three-run lead once Roman Quinn tapped a bunt single off Wander Suero, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a grounder to short, just sliding past catcher Kurt Suzuki’s tag.

That’s how it kept going for the Nationals — one step forward, two steps back, straight into another quiet loss. The Phillies tacked on another insurance run against Tanner Rainey in the eighth and two off Kyle Finnegan in the ninth. For the first time since Aug. 12 and 13, the Nationals ended back-to-back days with the same result. It just wasn’t how they wanted that to go.

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