WASHINGTON — It was one of those afternoons where it can be easy to project more meaning than there actually is: late August, four-game losing streak, three-game deficit in the standings, 12 hours removed from another gut-punch of a loss. But the guys who have lived through enough of these situations will tell you that the moment never really feels all that dire.
"Somebody's going to get hot in September," reliever Pat Neshek said with a shrug after the Phillies' latest trip to the abyss.
He's right, of course. Ten years plus a week ago, the Phillies were close to where they found themselves on Thursday afternoon. This was Sept. 3, 2008, after a series finale at Nationals Park. They'd lost five of their last eight, including two of three to the lowly Nats, to fall three games out of first place with 22 left to play. It felt as though the season was at that point of no return, and that feeling was amplified when the Phillies followed up a series win against the Mets by dropping two out of three to the Marlins.
But then somebody got hot, and that somebody was the Phillies, and 10 wins in 11 games later, they had a 2.5 game lead with five to play.
Fast forward back to Thursday. The Phillies arrived at the ballpark facing the possibility of ending the day as close to the third-place Nationals as to the first-place Braves. By the end of a 2-0 win, we hadn't learned anything about this team that we didn't already know. Aaron Nola was on the mound, and, lately, the days between his starts have been like gasps, or even an entire breath suspended. Since Aug. 3, they were 3-0 in his outings, 3-10 in everybody else's.
Nola was Nola, maybe even better: eight scoreless innings, nine strikeouts, six baserunners. You can read all about it elsewhere. Let's focus on a moment that occurred at the plate, because it epitomizes the identity that this team has developed over the course of this season.
For six innings, Max Scherzer looked very much like the pitcher who entered the game as the leading contender for the National League Cy Young Award. The Phillies sent 23 batters to the plate against him and came away with three walks and a one-hopper single that easily could have gone in the books as an error. But they also made him work, a characteristic that has come to define a lineup that entered the day seeing more pitches per plate appearance than all but one NL team. By the time Maikel Franco stepped to the plate with one out in the seventh, Scherzer had thrown 92 pitches, 25 more than Nola had at that point.
Franco had already seen 13 pitches in two plate appearances against Scherzer. After falling behind 1-2 in his third trip, the notoriously free-swinging third baseman battled back to draw a seven-pitch walk. Watching from the dugout, Nola understood the significance of such a moment.
"It's hard for a pitcher when guys are fouling balls off and working counts deep," the young righty said. "Our guys just try to get the next guy up, and anything can happen."
Sure enough, the breakthrough occurred. After Franco walked, Odubel Herrera took a first-pitch ball and then belted a cutter into the right-field seats. In the moment, it felt like a decisive blow, and that's what it proved to be. In the bottom of the eighth, Nola blew a 95-mile-per-hour fastball past Bryce Harper with runners on first and second, and then he watched Neshek retire the side in the ninth to snap the Phillies' losing streak at four.
After it was over, and the Phillies were 69-58 and 2.5 games behind the Braves in the standings, manager Gabe Kapler circled back to that at-bat by Franco in the seventh, speaking with as much enthusiasm about it as he had about Herrera's blast. Herrera, too, gave a nod to Franco.
"He set me up," the centerfielder said.
Who knows what it means in the grand scheme of things. A loss would not have been the end, not with seven games remaining against the Braves. At the same time, a win against an ace like Scherzer is another chip in the stack that the Phillies will carry with them into September. It's also the latest example of the resilience that this team has displayed throughout the season. For the umpteenth time, it's not dead yet, a fate that is very much the product of its propensity for battles like the one Franco waged in the seventh.
"When the guy hitting in front of you has a good at-bat, makes a guy work, you know a pitcher is going to make a mistake at some point," Franco said. "He made a mistake, and Odubel hit a home run. It's a good thing."