PITTSBURGH - The Phillies could hardly have asked more of J.A. Happ last night. As he has many times this season, the rookie assumed total control of a game - though this time, very abruptly, he lost it.

"It's really frustrating, because it was in my fingertips," he said after Garrett Jones' two-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning spoiled what seemed like another dominant performance. With that one swing, the Phillies lost to Pittsburgh, 3-2, at PNC Park, and faced questions about their dormant lineup.

"I could taste it," Happ said before he paused, released a long sigh, and resumed. "I made one mistake, and I paid for it. . . . This is really disappointing for me. It's hard to find the words right now."

The Phils' offense created no margin for error. It left eight runners on base, went hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position, and for most of the night clung to a one-run lead that came on a Paul Bako home run in the second.

"It's better to have runners in scoring position and not score than to not have runners in scoring position at all," Chase Utley said. "The hits will come."

Reminded that his hitters are usually better than they were last night, manager Charlie Manuel said, "They weren't better than that tonight."

But Manuel was effusive when asked about Happ.

"He pitched a hell of a game," he said. "I can't say enough about his game. . . . He pitched too good to lose."

Despite the immediate disappointment, the night represented another step in an increasingly remarkable year for the 26-year-old lefthander. Since May, Happ has gradually ascended from relief pitcher to fifth starter to very pleasant surprise, and now he is a top candidate for National League rookie of the year. Manuel offered a strong endorsement before the game, saying, "I think Happ should definitely be rookie of the year."

After winning 10 of 13 decisions this year, Happ enters the final month of the season with several new challenges. For the second straight start last night, he faced a team against whom he had already started.

Happ is skeptical of the notion that hitters will eventually adjust to him - "You have to have confidence that you'll be successful as long as you execute pitches," he said Wednesday - and his second time around the league now presents a chance to prove his point. On Saturday against the Mets and last night in Pittsburgh, he did not struggle against familiar teams.

Happ has also never been a starting pitcher in September and October. Manuel has allowed him to pitch deep into games all year; Happ has thrown more than 100 pitches in nine of his last 10 starts, including a career-high 127 in an Aug. 5 shutout.

The training staff designed a weightlifting program for Happ intended to prevent shoulder fatigue and ease the transition into autumn pitching, and Happ said the program was working so far, and he did not feel worn down from the workload.

He showed no signs of fatigue last night, but the offense failed to awaken. The only real threat came in the first inning, when the Phils managed just one run despite loading the bases with none out. "We let him get away there," Manuel said of Pirates starter Charlie Morton.

Despite the loss, and the surprisingly treacherous series in Pittsburgh, Utley was once again impressed by the rookie.

"He was outstanding," Utley said. "That home run was disappointing, but overall he should be proud of how he pitched."

Read Andy Martino's Phillies blog, The Phillies Zone, at http://go.philly.com/sports.EndText