WASHINGTON — For five innings Sunday, Ben Lively matched Stephen Strasburg. The two are not equals; Strasburg is a prized $175 million arm who pitched his team into the postseason and Lively is an underdog with an average fastball who is auditioning for a spot in a big-league rotation. But, for five innings, they each posted five zeros and permitted one hit to their opponents.
A 3-2 Phillies loss veered on two hanging breaking balls thrown by Lively — one in the sixth and one in the eighth. Lively pitched the team’s first complete game of the season in defeat.
“I’d rather get my teeth kicked in than a lose a game like that,” Lively said. “It’s just baseball.”
The Phillies had boarded their train home by the time Nationals Park erupted in celebration for another National League East crown, sealed with Miami’s 11-inning loss to Atlanta. Both the Phillies and Nationals are now reduced to meaningless September baseball, but with far different Octobers.
Washington treated Sunday’s game like it did not matter: It inserted one regular, Trea Turner, in its lineup on a potential clinch day. Turner mashed a hanging slider in the eighth inning for a solo homer that proved to be the decisive run after the Phillies mounted a small comeback.
That Lively even made it to the eighth is remarkable. He became the first Phillies starter not named Aaron Nola to do it all season. Nola has reached the eighth inning three times, the last being July 8.
Lively, 25, has a 3.86 ERA in 12 starts. The Phillies like the way he competes without a top-notch arsenal. His future is unwritten; at the very least, Lively is a depth rotation piece in the coming seasons.
“There’s always a discussion about what’s more important — velocity, deception, movement or location,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. “A lot of people will say velocity. But that’s not the case for me. It’s location and movement and deception that are just as important, if not more important.
“If you locate with lesser stuff, you can be successful. We’ve seen many pitchers in the major leagues who are like that.”
Strasburg, right now, occupies another universe. He tossed eight shutout innings Sunday to extend his scoreless streak to 34 innings. He has a 2.64 ERA in 2017. He won’t even pitch Washington’s first postseason game; that honor will go to Max Scherzer, the probable Cy Young Award winner in the National League.
Two Phillies reached base against Strasburg in eight innings. Freddy Galvis drew a walk in the fourth inning. Maikel Franco singled to left in the fifth and singled to right in the eighth. That was it.
The Phillies continued their late-season plan to experiment with lineup combinations. Aaron Altherr started for the first time since Aug. 4. Franco played first base for the first time in more than two years. Rhys Hoskins stayed in left field. J.P. Crawford returned to the lineup at third base.
Crawford struck out twice against Strasburg, then singled to start the ninth against former Phillies reliever Ryan Madson, who allowed two runs on a Nick Williams single. Crawford, the rookie infielder, saw 25 pitches in his three at-bats. He helped deny Strasburg a chance at the complete game.
Hoskins, for just the second time in his 31 career games, struck out three times. Against Strasburg, he looked confused.
He was not the only one.
“You want to throw guys right into the fire and let them know what they’re up against,” Mackanin said. “He’s one of the better pitchers in the league. We didn’t hit him. He had his best stuff today, in my opinion.”
An afternoon exposed to the best version of Strasburg, that was a decent lesson for a group of young hitters.