The gap between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Nationals is forged on nights like these, when the Nationals' pitchers speak with satisfaction about their work, but for a few pitches, and when Washington's hitters do just enough things right to talk about how they're not that far away from competing with the two-time National League champions.
But the gap exists because in most of these games, the Phillies come out on top. They did it on Wednesday night when the Nationals knocked starter Cole Hamels out of the game after five innings, getting half a game to tangle with the Phillies' shaky bullpen, and when Washington twice tied the game after starter Jason Marquis spotted Philadelphia a lead.
The Phillies' 8-4 victory lacked the emphasis of their 11-1 Opening Day victory over the Nationals, but the final effect was the same.
"They can switch the momentum in a heartbeat," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who homered and doubled, but struck out three times and made an error. "We're there. We're a couple plays, a couple pitches away from being in the game with those guys. I think we expect more."
They didn't get it on Wednesday night. The Phillies scored two runs in a first inning where Marquis walked three batters and hit another, and staked their lead for good in a three-run fifth inning punctuated by Ryan Howard's second homer in as many games.
Marquis, who had a 9.15 ERA this spring but started to regain some touch on his pitches toward the end of it, had little of that early Wednesday night. He walked Jimmy Rollins to start the game, then hit Placido Polanco on the arm, later throwing a wild pitch with Raul Ibanez at the plate that allowed Polanco to score.
He set down eight of nine in one stretch from the end of the first inning to the beginning of the fourth. But the right-hander, who was given a two-year, $15 million deal in the offseason primarily for his ability to steady the rotation, instead became the second pitcher in as many days to exit before the fifth inning.
"Today, he was just a little bit off," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "You see a guy throwing that many pitches for balls, there's probably a reason why. He's a great pitcher. He's been in the game for a while, he's been in the major leagues for a while, and he knows how to come back."
Offensively, the Nationals hewed to the formula to beat the Phillies as closely as they could. They worked deep into counts against Hamels, making him throw 100 pitches in five innings of work, and they had tied the game twice with a pair of rallies against him - one set up in the fourth inning when Nyjer Morgan's grounder went off the heel of Ryan Howard's glove at first base and skittered into foul territory down the right-field line, allowing the leadoff hitter to reach second and score on Desmond's double.
But of the six runners they put on base in the final three innings of the game, only one scored. That followed a five-inning stretch against Hamels where they stranded the leadoff hitter three times.
The Phillies, for their apparent weaknesses, don't usually miss chances like those. They do enough wrong that Marquis was still able to be defiant after the game - "There's a reason why (Howard) strikes out 180 times a year. He's got holes in his swing, and if you make pitches, he's going to be an out," Marquis said.
But the gap exists for a reason. The Nationals saw why on Wednesday.
"It's going to be good to go over and see the Mets (this weekend), and the Phillies again (next week)," Desmond said. "Once we get everything going, this team's going to be really good."