PHILADELPHIA - It's hard to predict them in the course of a 162-game season with countless hot streaks and slumps, but every now and then, there's a mismatch sticking out like a flare shooting up through the woods.
Nothing in the Nationals' past against the Phillies suggested they were likely to win on Thursday and avoid a sweep. They'd won just nine of their last 38 in Citizens Bank Park. Their starting pitcher, John Lannan, was 0-9 against them in his career. And opposing him was Roy Halladay, the 2010 NL Cy Young Award winner who'd allowed three runs against the Nationals in four starts since coming to Philadelphia.
The Nationals tried to fight the obvious. They held an impromptu, closed-door meeting for their struggling hitters before Thursday's game. They tagged Halladay for four hits in the fourth inning, with Jerry Hairston Jr. fouling off eight balls in a 13-pitch at-bat before driving in their second run of the night.
But in the end, the game took its obvious path: Halladay shut the Nationals down, Lannan got bounced early and the Phillies beat the Nationals 7-3.
The Nationals fell to 14-17 on their way to Florida, where they'll face a Marlins team that's gone 41-15 against them the last three years. They've won just six of 18 games in their division, and by the time they return home from a nine-game road trip, their record could be in trouble if they don't pull things together.
"We can't do anything about the last three days," Hairston said. "We know the Marlins are playing extremely well, and hopefully (we'll) put ourselves in position to win games. If we do that, we should be fine."
The Nationals can live with losing to Halladay; they're hardly the only team he's dominated, and Hairston, who's faced 826 pitchers in his career, called the Phillies right-hander the best he's ever seen.
"You hate to give a guy praise like that," Hairston said. "But you don't know what he's going to throw. Sometimes, you think it's going to sink and it cuts. Sometimes, it (sinks) when you think it's going to (cut). And then he's got a slow curveball to keep guys off-balance."
Lannan's struggles, though, are another matter. He made it through just two innings on Thursday, pitching to six batters in the third and snapping the Nationals' 30-game streak where a starter had gone at least five innings. In 13 career games against them, he's 0-10 with a 6.44 ERA.
Asked if he would consider setting up his rotation in the future so Lannan could avoid the Phillies, manager Jim Riggleman said that would probably affect other pitchers too much. The Nationals play the Phillies 18 times a year, so there's not much Lannan can do but go after them.
"Whatever it is with him and the Phillies - I don't know what that is now, 0-10 or something - that's too much for the quality of stuff that John has," Riggleman said. "As much as he's going to see the Phillies in this division, we've just got to be better than that."
The Phillies didn't have two hitters who have done the most damage against Lannan in the past; Chase Utley is still on the disabled list and Jayson Werth is in a Nationals uniform. But Raul Ibanez, who awoke from an 0-for-35 slump to thrash the Nationals like he's done for three years, doubled off Lannan in the third; he's now 11-for-20 lifetime against Lannan with a 1.640 OPS. Placido Polanco is 6-for-12 against him, and Shane Victorino, whose .333 career average against Lannan is modest by comparison, hit a two-run homer off him in the third inning.
Lannan said he doesn't get nervous or change his approach against the Phillies. "Maybe a couple years ago, I probably did, but not anymore," he said. But after getting through two scoreless innings, he let the ball start floating up in the zone, and got hammered.
"I just didn't have the life (on my pitches)," Lannan said. "It was just one of those days."
And in the course of a long season, it was one of those obvious mismatches.