Howard's two homers not enough

Howard's two homers not enough

WASHINGTON -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel tried to smile, attempting to remain upbeat in his quiet postgame debrief, but his words betrayed him.

"This was pretty tough," an exasperated Manuel said. "We couldn't hold [the Nationals]. You look up there, they had nine runs and 13 hits. When they put up nine runs, they deserve to win that game."

In letting another late lead slip away, the Phillies suffered a 9-7 loss at Nationals Park on Wedneday and slipped further behind in the standings during the most crucial of months. With 22 games left, Philadelphia rests three games behind New York, with a three-game series at Shea Stadium next on the docket starting on Friday.

"If we keep falling back, we're going to get in trouble," Manuel said. "We still have a good chance. Friday is the most important game."

Wednesday could turn out to be an important game, too. The surging Nationals, who remained in last place despite winning eight of their past nine games, pecked away at the team trying to reach the postseason. Washington overcame three deficits and two Ryan Howard homers to put Philadelphia away.

The Phillies find themselves in their biggest deficit since May 11. Just as uplifting wins can carry a team to a bigger place, tough losses can damage confidence heading into a big series.

Trying to protect a 5-4 lead in the seventh, Chad Durbin relieved Scott Eyre with two outs and no one on. He tried to work a red-hot Ryan Zimmerman away and it didn't work. The Nationals' third baseman hit a game-tying home run to center field, his second of the series.

"We went away and he was looking that way," said Durbin, who has a 7.82 ERA in his past 11 games and was appearing in his 60th game. "He hit it to the big part of the park. I know he's got plenty of power. If he's going to hit one, you want him to earn it."

An inning later, Durbin gave up the go-ahead run on a pinch-hit single by Ronnie Belliard, then allowed two more baserunners. J.C. Romero relieved and walked the bases loaded, then allowed Cristian Guzman to put the game away with a bases-clearing double.

"He's been in a hot streak before," Romero said of his former teammate in Minnesota. "It doesn't surprise me what he's doing. That's what happens when you're facing good hitters. When you make a mistake behind in the count, you're going to pay for it."

Howard's two homers gave him 39 for the season, which lead the Major Leagues. He gave the Phillies a two-run lead in the first and a one-run advantage in the sixth.

Philadelphia wasn't helped by Joe Blanton, who gave back a two-run first inning lead by allowing two runs in the bottom of the inning. With a 4.34 ERA in nine starts for the Phills -- he's 1-0 -- the right-hander lasted four-plus innings, which goes against his billing as an innings-eater.

"It was one of those nights where I was scuffling the whole night," Blanton said. "I couldn't really find it out there. I was trying to make the best pitches I could."

Few of them were good, and Manuel had to remove his starter after loading the bases with no outs in the fifth. Ryan Madson allowed two inherited runners to score, putting the Phillies down by a run.

Howard's second homer of the game regained the lead, until Durbin stumbled.

Hours before the Phillies took the field, they watched the Mets finish off a sweep of the Brewers with a 9-2 win. Most players shrugged at questions of added pressure to keep pace with a win that night.

"We don't want to scoreboard-watch, but it's a reality," Chris Coste said.

So might be a disappointing season of expectations if the Phillies' ill-timed stumble continues. They head to Shea Stadium needing a sweep to pull even.

"Baseball is a game of frustration. You have to learn how to deal with it," Chase Utley said. "I look forward to going to Shea. The atmosphere is always intense. We have a team that doesn't give up. We battled back last year, and can battle back again."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.