PHILADELPHIA – The Phillies confronted reality Wednesday night.

They are, until further notice, nothing more than a team struggling to reach the .500 mark.

On a steamy humid night with a chance to even its record for the first time since they were 31-31 on June 7, Philadelphia lost to the Washington Nationals 5-1 before 34,513 fans at Citizens Bank Park.

The defeat ended the Phillies' three-game winning streak. Washington hit four solo home runs off Phillies starter Cliff Lee.

“All four of the home runs I felt were decent pitches,” Lee said. “It was one of those deals when it’s hot here the ball carries. You have to do a better job of inducing more groundballs. They put some good swings on some decent pitches and got them out of here.”

The Phillies are now 4-2 on this pivotal 10-game homestand that will go a long way toward determining if they are legitimate playoff contenders. Philadelphia (45-47) trails the first place Atlanta Braves (52-39) by 7.5 games in the National League East.

The Phillies had been playing their best baseball of the season before Wednesday. They won the first two games of this four-game series, beating Washington 3-2 on Monday and 4-2 on Tuesday.

After those wins, fans began to envision a long winning streak that would vault the Phillies into playoff contention.

Wednesday’s loss reminded fans of the team’s warts and why it has hovered around .500 all season.

Lee (10-3, 2.86 ERA) has been the Phillies' best starter this season. But the Nationals took a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning on back-to-back home runs from Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos.

Washington made it 4-0 in the sixth inning on consecutive home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.

Rendon and Zimmerman’s home runs were particularly frustrating. Both came on 0-2 pitches. Lee threw 76 pitches in his seven innings – 64 of them for strikes.

Lee said there is no danger in throwing too many strikes. Conventional baseball wisdom calls for a pitcher to waste a pitch – throw it outside the strike zone – when ahead in the count 0-2. The hope is that the hitter will chase the pitch and swing and miss or make meager contact for an easy out.

“Over the course of a season, if you keep throwing strikes good things are going to happen,” Lee said. “I felt like I was throwing quality strikes (Wednesday). It’s going to look bad when it’s 0-2 and you give up a home run but a lot of times (in cooler weather) those are outs. I’m going to continue to pitch that way. When it’s 0-2 or 1-2, I’m going to try and throw the perfect strike.”

Meanwhile, Nationals starter and former Phillies prospect Gio Gonzalez limited the Phillies to six hits in his seven innings.

Philadelphia left seven runners on base and grounded into double plays in the first and third innings that ended scoring opportunities.

Phillies first baseman Darin Ruf broke up the shutout in the bottom of the seventh inning with an opposite-field home run to right field. It was Ruf’s first home run since he was recalled from triple-A after the Phillies put Ryan Howard on the disabled list with an injured knee last Saturday.

Philadelphia did get the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with two outs but Ben Revere lined out against Gonzalez to end the inning.

“(Gonzalez) had good stuff,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “He was throwing 92 or 93 mph. But when he wanted to, he could throw 95 mph. He threw our left-handed hitters a lot of breaking balls. He’s a good pitcher.”

The Phillies didn't threaten in the final two innings.

Philadelphia will again start to try to inch their way toward the .500 mark when the two teams conclude their four-game series at 7:05 p.m.

A victory today would give Philadelphia its third straight series win. That would be enough to re-energize playoff dreams – at least for one day.

Started at The Press in 1993 as an Ocean County reporter. Moved to the copy desk in 1994 until taking over as editor of At The Shore in 1995. Became deputy sports editor in 2004 and was promoted to sports editor in 2007.