Phillies starter Cliff Lee goes eight innings to improve to 9-2 after fanning nine and allowing just five hits over eight innings. He throws 110 pitches, 82 for strikes. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Tuesday afternoon, hours before another futile night for the Washington Nationals ended with a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Ian Desmond wanted to talk about the question hovering over this season: How have the Nationals morphed from a 98-win force into a team looking up at .500, from a World Series favorite into a group in search of itself?

Desmond met with Manager Davey Johnson about trying to play loose. He shared a long conversation with Jayson Werth. Desmond arrived at a conclusion that did not center on the Nationals’ .291 on-base percentage or injuries or Bryce Harper’s absence. All of that, in his mind, were so many symptoms of a larger concern: They have tried too hard to recapture what happened last season, grasping at a memory they can’t hold.

“We’re not giving ourselves a chance to become the 2013 Nats,” Desmond said. “We’re playing as 2012. We got to give ourselves time to breathe.”

The Nationals’ mission to find an identity continued in vain at Citizens Bank Park. At the critical juncture of another loss, the ball sizzled toward a second baseman playing left field. Steve Lombardozzi charged the line drive, fielded it on a short hop and heaved the ball toward the infield. Phillies scurried around the bases, growing the deficit too large to overcome, at least for a lineup like Washington’s against a pitcher like Cliff Lee.

“I mean, it hurts,” Johnson said. “But that’s where we’re at.”

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Danny Espinosa will return to his position at second base with the way Anthony Rendon is hitting. (Post Sports Live)

Maybe Lombardozzi could have caught Kevin Frandsen’s line drive, the keystone hit of the Nats’ fourth loss in five games. That question seemed beside the point. While they wait for Harper to return from a knee injury, the Nationals are reduced to playing an infielder in left field many nights and hoping against hope they will score runs.

“It’s just about the feeling, the atmosphere throughout the ballclub,” Desmond said. “When you had such a success last year, it’s so hard to let go of the things we did last year. This is a new team. We have probably a better team, a better squad roster-wise. We’re trying to force the things on ourselves that we did last year instead of letting us go out and play the game we know how to play.”

The Nationals (34-36) fell two games below .500, matching their season-worst, and tumbled into a virtual tie for second place with the Phillies. They missed a rare opportunity to gain extra ground on the first-place Atlanta Braves, who were swept in a doubleheader. (“I don’t worry about that,” Johnson said. “It’s a little too early for me to start watching the scoreboard.”) The Nationals ended the night seven games out of first, gaining ground but losing time.

“Maybe we’ve kind of lacked an identity as a team,” Werth said. “But you know, I think as you start winning games and you start playing and you go on a roll or you rally or whatever it is you do, you kind of create an identity. We just haven’t hit our stride as far as that goes.

“It’s not for lack of effort or for lack of caring. Guys in here work hard and want to win and play hard. It just hasn’t lined up for us yet. There’s a lot of season left. We just need to keep battling. If we can stay around or above .500 going into the break, the second half’s crazy. But we’ve got to stay close.”

Tuesday night, their offense took another lap around the drain. Lee shut the Nationals down for eight innings, striking out nine and allowing just five hits. The Nationals have made pedestrian pitchers look like aces all season; Tuesday it was an ace who looked like an ace.

Lee made only two mistakes. Werth smashed a first-pitch cutter over the left field wall in the fourth. Jeff Kobernus smoked a pinch-hit homer to nearly the same spot in the eighth, his first big league home run. Ross Detwiler matched Lee until the sixth, when fatigue may have struck and the Phillies pounced.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses whether the Nationals can win a wild card spot without Bryce Harper in the lineup. (Post Sports Live)

In his second start since he came off the disabled list with a strained right oblique, Detwiler contended with a 70-minute rain delay. He cruised for five innings, retiring the first seven batters he faced and yielding only one run, on Ryan Howard’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning.

The effects of his layoff may have surfaced in the sixth, when the Phillies turned the game. He had spotted his fastball low in the strike zone all night, but in the sixth inning the location elevated. Three hits scored one run, and then Detwiler hit Howard with a fastball to load the bases with no outs.

“The first few innings I wasn’t falling behind very much and kind of putting the pressure on them,” Detwiler said. “Then the sixth came and I just wasn’t throwing strikes early in the count.”

As Craig Stammen warmed, Detwiler showed that maybe he was not tired. He whiffed Domonic Brown with a 95-mph fastball and then struck out Delmon Young, flailing at a curveball in the dirt. He gave himself a chance to wiggle out of the jam, and then fell off the tightrope.

Frandsen roped a liner to left. Lombardozzi could not make the play. Two runs scored, which put the Nationals in a three-run deficit.

“It was a tough play,” Lombardozzi said. “I was going in on it. I was going to have to dive to catch it. I didn’t know if I could catch it. The last thing I want to do is let the ball get behind me. I was trying to come up with it and try to get the next guy at the plate.”

They had only erased one such lead all season and won, and now they had to do it against Lee. The Nationals entered the game as one of the league’s worst offenses, especially vulnerable against left-handed pitchers. They were batting .211 with a .283 on-base percentage when facing southpaws, and Lee is one of the best.

“For me, we’re just not grinding out at-bats and getting on base like I think we should,” Werth said. “That’s part of it for me. I don’t know what my numbers are, but I know I haven’t walked as much or gotten on base as much. But at the same time, Davey wants us to be aggressive, so it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve been more aggressive this year than in previous years. Like I said, it just hasn’t lined up for us yet. At some point, I think it will.”