PHILADELPHIA -- Pat Neshek has seen every single one of the Phillies' losses this season. Tuesday night's might have been the very worst.
"Which one is really the worst, when you have 12 of them?" Neshek said, following a crushing 5-4 loss to the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. "I think early in the season, too, we had some really tough losses and we built on that. I know you always say this is the worst one every night, but I think everybody said that at the time that this is the worst."
The Phillies could make the case for previous losses being their most painful defeats of 2018. But several things put Tuesday's loss near, if not at, the top. First, they wasted a masterful performance from Aaron Nola to fall 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Braves in the National League East. The NL Cy Young Award candidate allowed two runs (one earned) in seven innings to outpitch Nationals ace Max Scherzer for the second time in six days.
"We've had our fair share of losses this month, and a loss like that stings pretty bad," Nola said.
Second, the Phillies carried a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning, only to watch Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon hit a two-run home run against Neshek to take the lead.
Third, the Phillies made two throwing errors to allow two runs to score. Carlos Santana's errant throw to the backstop in the seventh inning turned a 3-0 game into a 3-2 game. Jorge Alfaro's throwing error into left field in the ninth inning turned a 4-3 deficit into a 5-3 deficit.
Fourth, the game ended with Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez pinch-running with one out for Wilson Ramos, who can barely run because of hamstring issues. Velasquez tried to tag up on Alfaro's flyout to center field, but he left second base early. The Nationals saw it and threw the ball to second, ending the game on a devastating baserunning gaffe.
"We're losing in weird ways," Phillies right-hander Tommy Hunter said. "Like, we're not getting beat. I mean, we're losing. But if you get beat, you get beat. We're beating ourselves a little bit."
Hunter pitched a perfect eighth inning and opened the ninth against Nationals slugger Bryce Harper, who walked on six pitches. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said he chose Hunter over recently acquired left-hander Luis Avilan to face Harper because he considered Hunter the better matchup.
"Let's go back to a dominant eighth inning, where I think he probably looked as good as he's looked all year," Kapler said. "And then pregame, what we do is we identify the very best matchup for our relievers versus every guy in their lineup and every guy on their bench, and Tommy stood out as the right guy for Harper, including our left-handed pitchers."
It is interesting that the Phillies have had the opportunity to use Avilan twice in key moments since they acquired him last week and have not used him either time.
Neshek entered and Rendon ripped a 1-2 slider over the left-field wall.
Nick Williams hit a one-out double in the ninth to give the Phillies hope. Ramos followed with a pinch-hit double to score Williams and put the Phillies within a run.
Then Alfaro flied out.
Then Velasquez left second base early.
"I wanted to put pressure on the outfield," Velasquez said. "I knew I had the base. I mean, clearly the ball wasn't even there by the time I reached third base, so I knew I was capable of taking third. I left early and I can't do anything about it. I guess it was a simple baserunning mistake, but what can I do now?"
What can the Phillies do? They have lost eight of their past 10 games, including three bullpen meltdowns in the past week, and 14 of their past 21. They have won just one series since late July.
"I don't think anybody's really, 'Oh man, it's over,'" Neshek said. "It's not like that in here at all. If anything, it's the opposite."
• Phillies bolster bench by adding Bautista
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
E-3 proves costly:Matt Wieters hit a ground ball to Santana with runners on second and third with one out in the seventh inning. Santana stepped on first then threw home, except his throw sailed over the head of Alfaro. Rendon scored easily, but as the ball caromed behind home plate, Ryan Zimmerman continued to run. A good throw might have had Rendon. Regardless, two runs scored to cut the Phillies' lead to 3-2.
"Carlos makes a play where he feels like he's going to get the most important out, which is the runner at first base, and then he's going to try to get rid of it as quick as possible," Kapler said. "Human error can happen there and he just didn't make his strongest throw. I think it's more a product of him looking to be quick and get the second out at the plate. I thought it was a real aggressive play in that regard. He makes a perfect throw and we're all fired up at that point."
E-2 proves even costlier: Zimmerman doubled and stole third base with one out in the ninth. Alfaro's throw to third sailed into the outfield, allowing Zimmerman to score and hand the Nats a 5-3 lead. It was a game-deciding insurance run.
"What Jorge needs to do in that situation is think through, 'Can [Asdrubal Cabrera] get there on time and can he really stay composed and make a strong accurate throw?' And if not, he holds on to the baseball there," Kapler said.
Nola has a 1.94 ERA in 13 starts at home this season. It is the first time the Phillies have lost a Nola start at home since Sept. 25, 2017.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Odubel Herrera and Alfaro both homered against Scherzer. Herrera's solo shot in the fourth made it 1-0. Alfaro's two-run shot in the fifth handed the Phillies a 3-0 lead.
HE SAID IT
"I don't worry about this group at all. I believe in our players. I'm going to continue to believe in our players no matter what. Their talent level has shown that we are going to win a lot of baseball games. We have won a lot of baseball games. We go through rough stretches. We talked about that pregame. I maintain that's just part of baseball. You're going to get your butt kicked on some nights and you can't let it spill into the next day." -- Kapler, who said before the game the Phillies are a "markedly better" team today than they were at the end of July, despite their struggles
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Phillies challenged the play that lost them the game, but replay confirmed that Velasquez left second base early.
Phillies right-hander Jacob Arrieta (9-9, 3.37 ERA) faces Nationals left-hander Giovany Gonzalez (7-11, 4.35) on Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. ET in the final game of a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park. Arrieta is 4-3 with a 3.13 ERA in his last 10 starts. He is 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA in two starts this season against Washington.