PHILADELPHIA -- For nearly five months, they've cruised along with no real hint of adversity, ascending to their sport's best record and putting themselves in position to reach the playoffs and win their division for the first time.
The Nationals, though, haven't actually accomplished any of that yet, lest anyone forget. There are still 35 games to be played, and nothing has been assured other than the fact they're in a better position than any other club to accomplish their goal.
If they needed a reminder of that, perhaps this weekend's series did the trick. Facing a Phillies club that has little left to play for except for pride, the Nationals came out flat and got swept, dropping Sunday's series finale 4-1 to extend their losing streak to four games.
Time to panic? Well, no. This team still boasts baseball's best record at 77-50 and still holds either a 4 12- or 5 12-game lead over the Braves (pending the outcome of Atlanta's late contest in San Francisco).
Perhaps, however, it's time for a bit more sense of urgency from a club that has maintained an even-keel all season and has insisted it's still too early to think about the standings.
"At no time did I think we were out of those games," right fielder Jayson Werth said after seeing his team lose three straight by scores of 4-2, 4-2 and 4-1. "So, no, I don't think there's any panic or anything like that. Although, when you're in a pennant chase and you're getting into September, there definitely should be a sense of urgency."
There didn't appear to be much sense of that this weekend, certainly not during Sunday's finale that featured a fifth-inning meltdown by Jordan Zimmermann and then a seventh-inning brain cramp from Werth and Adam LaRoche that cost the Nationals at least one run, maybe more.
Zimmermann had been mowing down the Phillies lineup for four innings, matching Cliff Lee's mastery, before he made a couple of crucial mistakes. First, he served up an RBI double to Lee, who drilled the ball to deep center to bring the day's first run home. Then moments later, he grooved a 3-1 fastball to Jimmy Rollins and watched the ball fly into the right-field bleachers to give the Phillies a sudden 3-0 lead.
"The first four innings were kind of a breeze," said Zimmermann, now 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA in five August starts. "In the fifth inning, I just hit a wall and got in a little bit of trouble. I definitely felt strong, which is a good thing. The stuff was pretty sharp. I got to take some positive out of it."
Laynce Nix's solo homer off Tom Gorzelanny in the sixth -- the slugger's first off a left-hander in eight years -- increased the lead to 4-0, but the Nationals appeared to have a rally going in the seventh, only to have it quashed by Werth and LaRoche's mental gaffe.
The situation: With Werth on second base and nobody out, LaRoche launched a high drive to right field. The ball struck a railing just above the fence and bounced back onto the warning track. First base umpire Gerry Davis immediately signaled the ball was in play -- the correct call according to the Citizens Bank Park ground rules -- but LaRoche and Werth each assumed it was a home run and began to trot around the bases.
The Phillies, on the other hand, realized the actual situation and got the ball back into the infield, ultimately getting LaRoche into a rundown between second and third, with Werth stuck on third base.
"I screwed up," LaRoche said. "I should've stopped at second there. Got a little confused coming around second. Looked up and saw Jayson breaking for home, and then was going to try to get into third and he came back. Just a cluster."
"I guess I saw -- what I thought I saw -- was the ball hitting the walkway above the fence," said Werth, who has plenty of experience with right field in this ballpark. "So I had no indication it wasn't a homer until I was halfway home, and for some reason third base coach Bo Porter was screaming about something, and I look up and the ball's on the way home. I obviously messed up the play, cost Rochie an easy RBI and potentially cost us a win."
Who knows what would have transpired had Werth and LaRoche responded appropriately, but the gaffe did feel worse when Tyler Moore followed with a double down the left-field line that would have scored LaRoche had he still been on base.
"I mean, this is a game you never take anything for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "My two veteran players took it for granted that the ball was out. ... That's kind of a mental mistake, because you can always review it. You never put yourself in position with the ball still on the field, and two veteran players messed that up."
The Nationals never threatened again and went down quietly against the Phillies bullpen, dropping three in a row to a club that knows its streak of division championships will end at five but is still playing with some fire down the stretch.
In the visiting clubhouse afterward, Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo wound up in heated discussion, but nothing that seemed to linger 15 minutes later. Asked if he felt his players had eased off the gas pedal this weekend or if he felt the need to hold a team meeting, Johnson emphatically said no.
"These guys ain't easing off the gas pedal," the manager said. "They're grinding. You're never as bad as you look when you lose, and you're never as good as you look when you win. Just remember that, you know? These guys don't need a pep talk, they don't need anything. A couple guys need to get healthy, and we'll be fine."