PHILADELPHIA -- Before the ball sailed past the glove of catcher Wilson Ramos, Zach Eflin had the makings of a defensive gem. The Phillies' starter had pounced on a bases-loaded bunt from Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg in the fourth inning. While off balance, he gripped the ball with his bare hand and sent it to home plate for a forceout.
Instead, the ball went sailing to the backstop, and a tie game unraveled into 5-3 Phillies defeat at Citizens Bank Park, adding on to a list of losses brought about by defensive miscues and baserunning blunders that -- in the midst of a playoff race -- was already too long.
"We gave a club with a very good, deep lineup additional outs," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "We can't afford to do that. We did it with a pretty good start from Strasburg on the other side. Against a team like this, you have to get the outs when you have a chance to get the outs."
Eflin said he hurried that throw because his momentum was carrying him into the path of Juan Soto, who was barreling toward home from third base. Eflin was "bracing for impact," and in doing so he neglected to look at where he was throwing the ball. It became the Phillies' 100th error of the season and gave the Nats a lead they never lost.
"I take a lot of pride in being able to field my position and being able to throw to bases whenever I want," Eflin said. "That one really hit home for me. I'm not happy about it. I'm actually pretty damn disappointed in myself. But keep the chin up and move on."
Later in that same fourth inning, Rhys Hoskins retreated on a fly ball to left field only to watch it drop in front of him for a single. Both plays allowed the Nationals to score. Both plays should have been outs.
Defensive issues have plagued the Phillies all year. They entered Monday with an MLB-worst -101 defensive runs saved, per Fangraphs. Just five teams have ever finished a season with that low of a mark. Of those teams, only the 2005 Yankees made the playoffs.
If their defense continues to cost them games, the Phillies will have a tough time breaking that trend. They have lost 13 of their last 20 contests. Yet they sit 3 1/2 games behind the Braves in the National League East and 2 1/2 games behind the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.
They need to make up ground, but they are within striking distance for a reason.
"I think it shows that we also get big hits and we also work deep counts and sometimes we make great plays and sometimes our pitching performances are stellar," Kapler said. "That can sometimes make up for some defensive deficiencies. I think that is what has happened this season."
It did not happen Monday. A new-look lineup produced two runs in the third. Hoskins homered in the eighth. But Strasburg largely shut down a Phillies team that has been one of the best at home by spacing five hits over six innings of two-run ball, and a Nats bullpen that has been shaky of late did enough to close out the game's final three frames.
Eflin, meanwhile, surrendered a single and two walks to fill the bases before his fourth-inning error. And in the first, he allowed three two-out singles to give Washington its first run before Nats catcher Matt Wieters took Eflin deep on the first pitch of the second inning. Eflin finished with five runs allowed (three earned) on eight hits, walking two and striking out five.
"Honestly, I thought I threw the ball pretty well," Eflin said. "I thought we did a good job of mixing it up. We had some good sequences going, utilized my changeup a lot tonight, which was big. It was a huge step for me being able to throw it that many times, for it to look that good.
"But at the end of the day, I lost the game."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Shift happens: Eflin retired the game's first two batters before the Nats knocked three straight singles to take a 1-0 lead. Hits from Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon beat infield shifts.
"It's frustrating at times, but at the end of the day, I typically look and see where everybody is playing before each batter," Eflin said. "You can say the same thing on the reverse side -- what if they would hit it into the shift every time tonight? So, you give and take. It goes both ways."
Slow Buffalo: Wilson Ramos tried to go from first to third on Asdrubal Cabrera's sixth-inning single. He might have made it if he were healthy. But neither of Ramos' hamstrings are at full strength, and -- after stopping briefly between second and third -- he strolled into a tag from third baseman Rendon for the inning's first out when a rally was needed.
Ramos was unavailable postgame because he was receiving treatment on his hamstrings. Kapler said he told Ramos after the game to run "base to base."
"If he stops at second base, we have runners on first and second there and are in a really good position to strike," Kapler said. "So that's probably the only thing we would do differently. I don't think we would go back in time and say, 'Oh, let's not play him.'"
Kapler tried a new lineup combination that proved effective in the third inning.
Nick Williams, batting eighth for the second time in his career, led off the inning with a walk. He scored on an RBI triple from Roman Quinn, who hit from the leadoff spot for the first time in his Major League career. Two batters later, Cesar Hernandez singled Quinn home from the three hole, a spot he's started in just three times in 641 career games.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Hoskins smacked a first-pitch home run off former Phillies reliever Ryan Madson to lead off the bottom half of the eighth inning. It was Hoskins' team-leading 27th homer of the season and his second in as many games.
HE SAID IT
"Ramos is going through a lot right now. He is a warrior. He is asking to be in the lineup. And when he's been in the lineup for us, he's been excellent thus far. Really proud of the toughness that he displayed tonight." -- Kapler, on if he was bothered by the crowd booing Ramos
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Eflin successfully tossed Adam Eaton's fourth-inning, bases-loaded dribbler to catcher Ramos, who caught it for a forceout and threw to first base attempting to turn a double play. The Nationals, however, challenged that Ramos' foot came off home plate before the ball reached his glove. The call stood and Ryan Zimmerman was out at home.
The second matchup of the Phillies' and Nats' three-game series at Citizens Bank Park, set for 7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday, features a rematch of last Thursday's duel between Cy Young Award contenders in Aaron Nola (15-3, 2.13 ERA) and Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.13). The Phillies won that game, 2-0, behind eight innings and nine strikeouts from Nola, who has allowed one or no runs in seven of his past 10 starts.