Playing down to the competition has been on Manuel's mind recently. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins talked with him about it just the other day.
"In a lot of ways, I agree," Rollins said. "There's no doubt about it. But there are definitely times that we haven't played down to our level of competition. ... But it's better to go on a bad stretch, I guess, against bad teams than against good teams. You do it against good teams, you feel like, man, maybe we're not good enough. Against bad teams, it's like, we're just bad."
The Phillies lost two of three to the Pirates, who have suffered a Major League-record 17 consecutive losing seasons, from Aug. 25-27 in Pittsburgh. The Astros, who are 15 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central, swept the Phillies over the weekend. And despite a five-run comeback in the top of the ninth inning highlighted by Matt Stairs' pinch-hit grand slam -- it snapped a 0-for-30 slump for Stairs -- they could not sweep the worst team in baseball.
The Phillies are 7-9 in their past 16 games, a stretch that started in Pittsburgh, and 2-5 in their past seven, which has turned an 8 1/2-game lead over the Marlins in the NL East to five with 24 games to play.
"We don't put anybody away," Manuel said.
"That happens," Rollins said. "Win by one. There's no pressure to win by 10. Win by one. We found that out a couple of years ago. It doesn't matter when we get there. You just hope to qualify, and when you do qualify, you hope to be playing your best. There's no pressure to win by a certain amount of games, because you have a lead. Win by one. That's all it takes."
Right-hander Joe Blanton struggled on Thursday for the first time since May. He allowed seven hits and eight runs in 4 2/3 innings.
"I [stunk]," Blanton said.
Blanton was 7-3 with a 2.59 ERA in 18 starts from May 26 through Saturday, in Houston. His ERA ranked eighth-best in the Majors and sixth-best in the NL in that stretch. His 11 consecutive quality starts were a career high. But he allowed two runs in the third inning and another in the fourth to give the Nationals a one-run lead.
The Nationals scored five more runs in the fifth, thanks to a two-run homer by Adam Dunn and a three-run homer off the bat of rookie Ian Desmond.
The inning started when Willie Harris doubled to right field. Right fielder Jayson Werth actually got a glove on the ball but couldn't catch it. Werth said that he should have been credited with an error. Had Werth caught the ball, Blanton likely would have gotten out of the inning without a run scoring, as he retired the next two batters before allowing the pair of homers.
Brad Lidge, whose role in the bullpen has changed because of his season-long struggles, pitched a scoreless eighth inning in what appeared to be mop-up duty, but the Phillies scored five runs in the ninth to make the Nationals sweat.
The Phillies loaded the bases on an error, a single and a walk, then Stairs belted his pinch-hit grand slam. Rollins singled, and Shane Victorino sent him home with a double.
The Phillies had runners on first and third with one out -- Victorino represented the tying run at third -- but Ryan Howard hit into a double play to end the game.
"We have to get after them more, basically like we used to," Manuel said. "Especially ... against these second-division teams. We're better than they are."
"Everybody goes through bad stretches," Rollins said. "Ours happens to be against teams we should have beaten. There are positive things to look at. That tough stretch is behind us."
The Phillies play another second-tier team this weekend at Citizens Bank Park, in a four-game series against the Mets.
"We want to put ourselves in a situation where we still control our own destiny," Victorino said. "But yet we're letting teams creep back in and giving them some kind of confidence. That's the one thing that we fear. That we're letting these teams have confidence. We shouldn't let that happen."