Phillies slip back to .500, and slide out of No. 7 seed in playoff picture, with 5-1 loss to Nationals

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Anibal Sanchez #19 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on Sept. 21, 2020 in Washington, D.C. The Nationals won 5-1. - Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America/TNS

When the Phillies awoke Monday in Washington, it was easy for them to feel optimistic. Four more wins will almost certainly put them in the playoffs, and they just so happened to have their best pitchers — Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola — starting four of the final seven games.

It was all lined up.

And now, it’s a jumbled mess.

Wheeler gave up two runs in a 34-pitch first inning Monday night. And although he pulled it together and kept the Phillies in the game for the better part of six innings, the offense fell silent in a 5-1 loss to the Washington Nationals that left the wild-card race tighter than a vice grip.

The loss dropped the Phillies back to the .500 mark at 27-27 and out of the No. 7 spot in the eight-team postseason field. The Cincinnati Reds defeated the Milwaukee Brewers to leapfrog the Phillies, leaving them to wait for the West Coast results to determine if they would fall behind the San Francisco Giants, too, and out of the playoff picture.

It was a frustrating night all around. Phillies manager Joe Girardi and center fielder Roman Quinn were ejected in the third inning after Quinn argued a borderline strike call by home-plate umpire Junior Valentine on a low change-up from Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez.

Bryce Harper returned to the lineup after pulling himself out of Sunday’s game in the seventh inning with lower back stiffness. But Harper went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, one of which came on a dirt-diving splitter from Sanchez with the tying run in scoring position in the fifth inning.

Wheeler is slated to pitch the penultimate game of the season on Saturday at Tampa Bay, with Nola lined up to start the season finale. The Phillies hoped to clinch a playoff spot before then and to not have to use Nola. Instead, the race likely will go right down to the wire.

Wheeler threw a season-high 113 pitches in only 5 2/3 innings. He gave up one first-inning run on an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera and another when catcher Andrew Knapp’s throw on Brock Holt’s steal of second base skipped into center field.

Otherwise, Wheeler overcame control difficulties to give the Phillies a chance, at least until reliever Blake Parker gave up two runs in the seventh inning.

Sanchez was one strike from completing five scoreless innings when he gifted the Phillies a run on a balk. But with the tying run on second base, Sanchez struck out Harper.

Wheeler, meanwhile, had retired nine consecutive batters and 13 of 15 when he went back out for the bottom of the sixth. But he gave up back-to-back singles to Cabrera and Holt and Luis Garcia’s one-out tapper in front of the mound that drove home Cabrera to stretch the margin to 3-1.

The Nationals effectively put the game away by adding two runs in the seventh inning against Parker. Holt stroked an RBI single the other way to left field, where Mickey Moniak’s throw sailed past third base, skipped out of play, and enabled Cabrera to score.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer