Nationals power past Phillies, Cliff Lee
ALTHOUGH IT'S July and not September, the Phillies are in the thick of the National League wild-card race simply because there is only one team in between them and the team currently holding the league's second card.
That team happens to be the one at Citizens Bank Park this week: the Washington Nationals.
The Phils entered play yesterday six games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the last NL wild card. The Nats were 4 1/2 back of Cincinnati.
Regardless if they make their run within the division or for the wild card, the Phils have to leapfrog Washington at some point. They appeared to be in pretty decent position to make that happen before the weekend after taking the first two of a four-game series in South Philly before sending All-Star Cliff Lee to the mound in the third game.
Lee hadn't lost a start in more than 2 months, since May 1. Lee had six wins and a 2.48 ERA in nine career starts against the Nationals.
But baseball is not a popular sport among the gambling crowd because it's nothing if not unpredictable.
Lee, the most consistent player on the Phils roster for the season's first 3 months, served up four solo home runs in a 5-1 defeat to Washington.
The loss was Lee's first to an NL East opponent this season. The four homers Lee allowed tied a career high.
"All four of the home runs were decent pitches," Lee said. "It was just one of those deals that when it's hot, the ball carries and you have to do a better job of inducing groundballs. But they put some good swings on decent pitches and got them out of here."
"His stuff was really good," manager Charlie Manuel said. "They got four balls airborne and they went out of the yard. It was too bad because I felt like he was throwing just as good as I've seen him all year."
The loss was just the third for the Phillies in their last nine games. It prevented the Phils (45-47) from reaching the elusive .500 mark.
The Phillies have been one win away from climbing up to the .500 mark five times since Memorial Day weekend. They've lost four of those games and have had a .500 or better record for just 2 days since mid-April.
Even in the second year of baseball's second wild-card system, it's difficult to muster up too much optimism if you can't even attain a winning record.
"Whether you think your delusional or not, it can happen," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said appropriately about the wild card before the game.
Bullpen issues aside, the Phils' best chance at making a run would come if both Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee pitch to their Cy Young-caliber capabilities. Lee has handled his part of that tandem while Hamels has only just beginning to show signs of life.
But yesterday, Lee simply threw too many strikes.
Locked in a scoreless tie with fellow lefty Gio Gonzalez, Lee left an 0-2 cutter up and rookie Anthony Rendon deposited it into the leftfield seats to begin the fifth inning. Two pitches later, Wilson Ramos made it 2-0 Washington with a solo home run of his own.
The Nats completed the trick again to begin the sixth. After Ryan Zimmerman ripped a home run to center to begin the inning - on an 0-2 fastball left in the heart of the plate - Jayson Werth hit the very next pitch over the leftfield fence.
Four swings, 4-0 Nationals lead off Lee.
"I felt like they were decent pitches," Lee said. "It's going to look bad when it's 0-2 and you give up a home run. But a lot of times, those are outs - more times than not. I'm going to continue to pitch that way and I'm going to throw strikes at every pitch."
Lee had not allowed four earned runs since the last time he lost, May 1. That was 11 straight starts of allowing three earned runs or fewer.
Lee didn't allow back-to-back home runs to begin the seventh. Instead he retired Washington in order in his final inning of work.
Lee gave up nine hits in seven innings. He struck out six and didn't walk a batter. But he also threw an eye-popping 64 of his 76 pitches for strikes.
While baseball is rarely predictable, Lee's pitches were on at least four at-bats last night.
"If you're getting them out, nobody is going to say anything; once someone hits you, you say he's making it too good," Manuel said of criticism that Lee threw too many strikes. "When you're pitching like that, it's pretty hard to criticize a guy, I think. He was that good."
"Over the course of the season, if you are throwing strikes, good things are going to happen," Lee said. "It is my job as a starting pitcher to throw strikes and keep the defense on their toes. That's what I did tonight - that's the best I've done in a while. They weren't just strikes, but I thought they were quality strikes."
Darin Ruf accounted for the only run the Phillies scored. The rookie first baseman hit a solo homer to stop Gonzalez' shutout bid with two outs in the seventh inning.
Ruf, making his fifth start since taking over for the injured Ryan Howard, went 1-for-2 with a home run and a walk off Gonzalez. The rest of the Phillies went 5-for-23 with one extra-base hit (a Michael Young double) off the former Phillies farmhand.
"He was mixing his pitches well," Manuel said of Gonzalez. "He was throwing 92-93 miles per hour and any time he wanted to he could go up and get a 95 if he had to. He was getting his breaking balls over and throwing a lot of soft stuff to lefthanders. He pitched a real good game."
Gonzalez, like Lee, pitched seven innings. But he threw just 74 of his 116 pitches for strikes.
On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21