PHILADELPHIA -- For all the agony they have suffered in this town, the lopsided losses and the taunting fans and especially the division titles clinched against them, the Nationals arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday knowing they could leave town Thursday having celebrated on enemy turf.
First things first, though. They needed to win their series opener against the Phillies, which proved perhaps a more daunting task than hoped.
A two-inning meltdown by Ross Detwiler left the Nationals in a deep early hole. Then, despite knocking out ace Cole Hamels after five innings, they couldn't touch a parade of relievers that trotted out of the Philadelphia bullpen.
Combine this 6-3 loss with the Braves' simultaneous walk-off, 4-3 victory over the Marlins and suddenly the Nationals' path to the NL East crown looks a bit bumpier. Their lead is down to four games with eight to play. Their magic number remains five. And they can no longer clinch here in Philly. The celebration can't take place until Friday night in St. Louis at the absolute earliest.
"You take a lot of pride getting a win down the stretch like this," Detwiler said. "That's what we all play for. It could have been a big step. We could have celebrated on their field, like they have on our field, and I didn't let that happen."
The notion of the Nationals dancing in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park -- just as the Phillies did at Nationals Park upon clinching the 2010 NL East title and just as they did right here with the Nats in attendance in 2007 and 2008 -- maybe was too perfect. The poetic symmetry might have been too much to expect.
But if they couldn't wrap this thing up in front of their own fans on South Capitol Street, the Nationals would have loved to do it in South Philly. Just one problem: The local ballclub may not reach the postseason for the first time since 2006, but it's still a mighty tough club to beat.
Indeed, the Phillies remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Washington owns a 33-21 record against everyone else in the division but is now 5-8 against the five-time reigning champs.
"They've got a lot of quality players over there," manager Davey Johnson said. "Great pitching staff. Good team."
They also possess several potent bats, especially with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz all healthy at the same time at last. But opposing pitchers know they can be beat, provided they aren't simply handed free bases.
That's what left Detwiler kicking himself at the end of this night. He could've been most upset about the two home runs he surrendered: one to rookie Darin Ruf, an old college adversary in the Missouri Valley Conference, and one to Ruiz, who tattooed a third-inning fastball into the left-field stands for a three-run homer that blew the game wide open.
The home runs, though, were less of a concern to Detwiler than the three walks he issued over a four-batter span in the second and third innings. The first was a four-pitch walk to Hamels; the second two opened the next frame and set the stage for Ruiz's homer.
"When I don't even have a fastball, that's what happened," he said. "I was kinda out there throwing the ball the other batter's box. It wasn't even close. You can't even expect a swing and miss at that point."
Unable to get ahead in the count with his fastball, Detwiler couldn't then turn to his offspeed pitches to finish off hitters, frustrating his manager.
"He's got a great fastball, but he's also got a good changeup and good curveball," Johnson said. "He's got to learn to pitch with them instead of just trying to overthrow. And that's what he was doing, just trying to overthrow. What'd he walk, five guys or something? You've got to learn. That's that learning process."
Detwiler did manage to right his ship and retired the last nine batters he faced following the Ruiz homer. At that point, the Nationals trailed 5-1, though they still liked their chances after knocking out Hamels (who threw a whopping 99 pitches in only five innings) and forcing Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to go to his suspect bullpen early.
The Nationals, though, couldn't touch that relief corps. They went 1-for-13 against Josh Lindblom, Justin DeFratus, Antonio Bastardo, Phillipe Aumont and Jonathan Papelbon and never seriously threatened to mount a comeback.
"You definitely want to get to the bullpen, especially in those middle innings," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "But sometimes you can't do it."
As this was all playing out, the Nationals might not have been able to help but notice the out-of-town scoreboard along the right-field wall. The Braves were three outs from a 3-2 loss to the Marlins, then suddenly came back to life and won in dramatic fashion on Freddie Freeman's game-winning homer off Mike Dunn.
Thus Atlanta officially clinched a playoff berth, while also trimming the Nationals' lead in the division to four games, the smallest margin they've owned since August 28.
"I think the worst thing you can do is look at the standings," Suzuki said. "A loss is a loss. Losses always hurt. You definitely want to win more games than you lose. But it's just one of those games. Put it behind you, look forward to tomorrow and give us a chance to win the series."
The Nationals still control their own destiny, with even some margin for error. If they go 4-4 the rest of the way, the Braves would need to go 8-0 to force a one-game tiebreaker to determine the NL East champ and the Wild Card.
An Atlanta loss or two wouldn't be frowned upon, either.
"All year long, we've won, they've won, we've won, they've won," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "For them to get one up on us today, it's no big deal. We've still got eight games to go, and I think we feel pretty good about ourselves."