What started out as another promising night at the yard for the Phillies eventually morphed into a game that left many wondering, again, if they have enough pitching.
Aaron Nola took a four-run lead into the seventh inning against the Nationals and had pitched well, allowing lone runs in the first and sixth, when Washington began to claw its way back.
The Phillies' infield defense had been especially impressive early, with Rhys Hoskins and Maikel Franco making diving plays and Jean Segura standing out twice on a bare-hand of a slow dribbler and a ball he ranged for up the middle to retire speedster Adam Eaton. But to start the seventh, Franco threw a ball into the dirt that Hoskins was unable to scoop, Yan Gomes followed with a homer, Howie Kendrick homered two batters later and Nola was pulled.
The error was costly, but it's still strange to see what's going on with Nola. Through three starts, he has a 6.46 ERA, has allowed five home runs and issued eight walks in 15⅓ innings. He has given up six and five runs in his last two starts after going 38 straight games surrendering four runs or fewer.
"I classify it as uncharacteristic and think we'll lean on two years of history that suggests this is probably not Nola," manager Gabe Kapler said after the 10-6 loss (see observations). "Certainly have to dig into why the balls are flying out of the ballpark, that's an important part of our process and we'll do that.
"(Entering the seventh) he was working a low pitch count, he was working efficiently, he was looking like Aaron Nola. He's earned a tremendous amount of my trust over the last calendar year. He earned the right to go out and continue to pitch well in that game. The error cost us, certainly."
The Phillies' bullpen, when everyone is available, can be pretty good. But Tuesday night, they didn't have everyone available. The Phillies wanted to stay away from Pat Neshek and David Robertson after using them both three times in the last four days. Both had appeared six times in the Phillies' first nine games. It is a long season and no team with postseason aspirations should burn out its top relievers this early. Kapler is far from the only manager who would exercise caution and try to get through a game with his other six relievers.
He turned to Seranthony Dominguez to finish the seventh after Nola gave up the second home run. Dominguez, for the second straight night, looked good, getting two outs on four pitches.
Kapler considered bringing Dominguez back out for the eighth inning but went with Hector Neris instead because the Phillies preferred Neris' splitter against the heart of the Nats' order. It took Neris 30 pitches, 26 of which were splitters, but he did get through that eighth inning unscathed.
The other issue with bringing Dominguez out for a second inning was his ineffectiveness in those situations last season. When the Phillies trotted Dominguez out for a second inning last year, he often was not the same pitcher he was an inning prior.
The Phillies' plan was to try to use Neris for more than one inning but that obviously changed when he needed 30 pitches to complete the eighth. That left Kapler to choose between Edubray Ramos, Juan Nicasio and situational lefty Jose Alvarez to face the bottom of the Nats' order in the ninth. He went with Ramos, who came within one strike of saving the game and sending the fans home happy. If Ramos executes one more pitch to Victor Robles, none of these questions surface, at least not as loudly as they did Tuesday night when Phillies fans at the park and on the internet made pleas again for the team to sign Craig Kimbrel.
"Would we have liked to have a full bullpen? Absolutely," Kapler said.
"It was a grind to get through, just like it's a grind for them to get through our lineup."
That was the aspect of Tuesday's game that may go overlooked. The Phillies, once again, chased a very good pitcher early. Stephen Strasburg lasted all of four innings, needing 63 pitches to get through the third and fourth. He was taken deep by Bryce Harper and Maikel Franco and allowed a two-run triple to Jean Segura.
The Phillies couldn't hang on, so the story wasn't the offense but the pitching. Can Nola revert to ace form? Do the Phillies have enough relief pitching? Have they fortified their roster enough to protect the leads the offense provides?
These are questions that can't be answered on April 10 but will be answered as the grind of a 162-game season wears on. Good teams blow leads. Great teams hang on to them with a bit more frequency. The Phillies protected one-run leads on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday night, they fell one pitch short.
They can still earn a series win over the Nationals Wednesday night when Nick Pivetta opposes Jeremy Hellickson.
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