WASHINGTON - The wind whipped Wednesday through Nationals Park. A storm neared. The soaking rain arrived too late for A.J. Burnett, the 37-year-old righthander who eschewed retirement for $16 million and one more shot at a championship, only to pitch through a hernia on a miserable Phillies team.
There is no reprieve for Burnett, who is just another to succumb to the malaise that has infected the most expensive team in franchise history. The Phillies lost, 8-4, to Washington, when Burnett was pummeled for 10 hits and eight runs in six innings.
It marked their fifth consecutive defeat, the longest streak in an unhinged season. To make matters worse, they endured a 1-hour, 48-minute rain delay at the seventh-inning stretch.
Wet fans dashed to the Metro station past center field before the last train departed. So, fewer than 200 people remained for the final out, a Chase Utley pop-up, at 11:56 p.m.
The Phillies offense cracked Stephen Strasburg, but not before Burnett dug a hole too deep to escape. Burnett, at this point, does not resemble a wise investment. He leads the majors with 41 walks. He has a 7.25 ERA over his last six starts, a span of 36 innings. That, after a 2.06 ERA in his first seven starts, prompts questions.
The pitcher characterized his hernia - diagnosed in April - as a possible "blessing in disguise" because it forced him to refine his mechanics. Those hopes were fleeting; he has walked four or more batters in six of his 13 starts.
"The one thing he does that I noticed, his focus goes to a different level with men on base," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said before the game. "I think more focus - and he's been talked to about that - more focus throughout his whole outing on making quality pitches, on getting ahead to hitters" would help.
That trend did not continue Wednesday. Adam LaRoche doubled to begin the fourth. After a groundout, Burnett loaded the bases with two walks. Danny Espinosa plated two with a double. Strasburg singled up the middle for one more run. A Denard Span groundout made it a four-run fourth.
Washington added three runs in the sixth when Burnett failed to escape another jam. Espinosa singled. Strasburg walked. Span doubled. Anthony Rendon (who also hit a solo homer) singled. Mercy.
Burnett's strikeout rate, which reached a career-high last season with Pittsburgh, has declined this season. The margin for error is smaller. No Phillies pitcher is afforded mistakes these days, not when the offense posts zeros in early innings. Strasburg fired 42 pitches in three breezy innings; Jimmy Rollins bunted his first pitch foul at 7:08 p.m. It was an ominous sign.
Strasburg had not allowed an earned run to the Phillies in his last 21 innings. When the Phillies scored Wednesday, it was because Washington stumbled in the field. The Nationals committed two errors in the fifth to create two unearned runs. Domonic Brown started the inning with a single. LaRoche flubbed a pickoff throw that advanced Brown to second. He scored on Reid Brignac's double, a catchable ball hit to left field that Ryan Zimmerman - a third baseman until Tuesday - misjudged.
Burnett permitted Washington to recoup one of those runs on the second pitch he threw in the bottom half of the inning. Rendon slaughtered a 90-m.p.h. fastball that pelted the Phillies bullpen beyond left field.
In the seventh, before the deluge, John Mayberry Jr. launched a pinch-hit, two-run homer. That swing might have convinced umpires to outlast the downpour.
That was no comfort for a Phillies team that took batting practice while an MLB Network montage of their recent blunders - scored to a soundtrack of bench coach Larry Bowa's recent rant - played on the massive scoreboard.
There is no escape from reality.