CINCINNATI -- The mosh pit at home plate had already broken up and the victorious home team was nearly off the field, leaving Bryce Harper alone to continue his slow walk across the outfield. His shoulders slumped, head bowed, he put one foot in front of the other and trudged from right field all the way to the third-base dugout.
In that moment, he was the picture of dejection.
Try as he might, Harper couldn’t save the Phillies again Thursday. He made a leaping attempt at the right-field wall, but Phillip Ervin’s drive sailed over his outstretched glove and into the seats in the 11th inning to lift the Cincinati Reds to a 4-3 victory here at Great American Ball Park.
With that, a Phillies season that is perilously close to slipping away inched closer to the brink. After taking the first two games from the Reds earlier in the week, the Phillies lost Wednesday night with ace Aaron Nola on the mound and again Thursday. To call a four-game split with the non-contending Reds “unsatisfying” is an understatement for the Phillies, who don’t play another team with a losing record until Sept. 27.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said after making a run-saving throw in the seventh inning and hitting a game-tying homer in the eighth. “Especially with Nola on the mound yesterday, we felt like we had a great chance to win at least three out of four. We were thinking hopefully sweep them. It’s definitely frustrating we didn’t come out to play the last couple of days. We battled, we fought back, we stayed in the games, but we just weren’t able to do enough to get it done.”
Sounds like the story of the Phillies' season, doesn't it?
Playing with an expanded September roster that nevertheless feels shorthanded given the season-ending injuries to a handful of key late-inning relievers, No. 2 starter Jake Arrieta, and left fielder Andrew McCutchen, the Phillies burned through nine pitchers before newcomer Nick Vincent gave up the leadoff homer to Ervin in the 11th.
The Phillies got only seven hits. They went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position. And given their inability to generate a rally, Gabe Kapler was left to manage for, get this, a pinch-hit solo home run. He called on Jay Bruce in the ninth inning and Logan Morrison in the 10th to come off the bench and provide power. In both cases, they struck out.
"The whole game was kind of designed to potentially come down to Jay Bruce and Logan Morrison based on the work that they did last night," Kapler said, referring to their pinch-hit home runs in Wednesday night's loss. "We had to score a run to win the game. How can we score one run? The best way to do it is quickly. We wanted to use our best pinch-hitter."
Instead, the Phillies slipped to 3½ games behind the Chicago Cubs, who pushed the margin back to four games with a 10-5 victory Thursday night in Milwaukee. Since they swept a three-game series from the Cubs last month — punctuated by Harper’s game-winning grand slam on Aug. 15 — the Phillies have gone 9-9. Seven of those losses have come against the San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Reds, all teams that aren’t in playoff contention.
Simply put: That isn't good enough.
"Obviously it's a super disappointing loss," Kapler said. "We all understand our path to success is going to come through our offense and ability to score runs, have big innings, things like that. We weren't able to do that in an extra-inning game. Obviously this is a difficult one to deal with."
For five innings -- or two times through the batting order -- the starting pitchers dueled. Sonny Gray limited the Phillies to one run on Realmuto’s triple and Rhys Hoskins’ double in the fourth inning. Jason Vargas, meanwhile, gave up only two hits in what was shaping up to be his best start since being traded to the Phillies on July 29.
But the Reds took care of that in a span of three pitches in the sixth inning.
Alex Blandino doubled and Jose Iglesias slugged a two-run homer to chase Vargas. Eugenio Suarez followed with a first-pitch homer against reliever Jared Hughes to open a 3-1 lead.
The Phillies pulled within one run in the seventh inning. And after Realmuto took a throw from Harper in right field and fired to second base to cut down Jose Peraza, who was caught off the bag, the All-Star catcher tied the game with a solo homer against Reds reliever Robert Stephenson.
But the offense went silent after that. And with 23 games remaining beginning Friday night against the New York Mets at Citi Field, time is running out for the Phillies bats to get hot enough to carry the team to its first playoff berth since 2011.