CINCINNATI — They’re all must-win games now. With 3½ weeks left in the season and a three-game deficit in the wild-card chase, the Phillies no longer have any margin for error. Not anymore.
But when Aaron Nola starts, well, what’s more urgent than must-win? Let’s say victory is imperative.
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So, when Nola allows five runs and doesn't reach the fifth inning — outcomes that hadn't occurred since the middle of June until they reared their heads Wednesday night — it somehow feels more damaging to the Phillies' playoff chances than when any of the other four starters throws a dud. It feels downright crippling, actually.
Nola put the Phillies in a five-run hole at Great American Ball Park, and despite a valiant comeback to tie the game in the seventh inning, the bullpen gave up two late home runs in an 8-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. The Phillies slid three games behind the idle Chicago Cubs for the second wild-card berth in the National League.
“I think what’s most frustrating is we had an opportunity to pick up Aaron today,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “He’s picked us up so many times along the way. He’s been there for us, been a rock and a foundation, carried us in many ways, and it would’ve been really nice on a day that he didn’t have his best command for us to somehow squeeze this game out. We’ve got to find a way to win that game."
Jose Iglesias snapped a 5-5 tie in the seventh inning with a solo homer to dead center field against lefty Jose Alvarez, who hadn’t been taken deep since June 28. Then Reds pitcher Michael Lorenzen jacked a two-run homer in the eighth against reliever Blake Parker.
If the Cubs go 12-12 in their final 24 games, the Phillies would have to finish 16-8 to beat them out. Nola is scheduled to start five more times. If they go 5-0 in his starts, they would still have to go 11-8 in games started by other pitchers.
And after losing the last three games started by their ace, Aaron Nola Day no longer feels so automatic, either.
“Those outings are always frustrating, but especially right now. We’re in the race,” Nola said. “It stings a little bit.”
Is it any wonder that the Phillies continue to discuss calling up 23-year-old top prospect Spencer Howard for a late push? The right-hander strengthened his case Wednesday night with double-A Reading by holding Trenton to one run on two hits and two walks with 12 strikeouts in seven innings in an Eastern League playoff game.
Adding injury to the insult of having their modest three-game winning streak snapped by the shorthanded Reds, the Phillies lost leftfielder Corey Dickerson in the fifth inning to a sore left foot. He fouled a ball off his foot two innings earlier, then it flared up as he ran to first base on a single. But Dickerson, 20-for-55 (.364) in his last 13 games, said he expects to play Thursday in the series finale.
“That’s what I told [Kapler],” Dickerson said. “Just see how I wake up. I’m sure I’ll be a little sore, but I’ve played through a lot worse stuff. I’m just glad it’s not broken.”
It was evident almost immediately that Nola lacked his best stuff. His seventh pitch, a fastball over the heart of the plate, got smacked for a solo homer by Joey Votto. His 30th pitch, a curveball without enough bite, got hit for a triple off the center-field wall by Brian O’Grady, an Archbishop Wood product.
Nola gave up a total of seven runs in his previous four starts combined. Facing a Reds team that was missing slugging third baseman Eugenio Suarez (bruised hand) and rookie centerfielder Nick Senzel, a late scratch with a sore right shoulder, Nola allowed four runs in the second inning alone.
“Oh yeah, I was really off,” Nola said. “Curveball was probably one of the worst days it’s ever been this year. Just really didn’t have a feel for getting on top of it today. I really didn’t have much.”
The big deficit prompted Kapler to lift Nola for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth inning, and Logan Morrison validated the decision by clocking a two-run homer. Two batters later, J.T. Realmuto slugged a two-run homer to draw the Phillies within 5-4.
Jay Bruce, who spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Reds, tied the game with a pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning. It marked the first time in 61 years — since Rip Repulski and Bob Bowman on Aug. 13, 1958, against the Pirates — that the Phillies hit two pinch homers in a game.
“When he hit that homer, it was like, ‘We’re going to win this game,’” Morrison said. “Unfortunately it didn’t happen.”