CINCINNATI - The Phillies had already blown a three-run lead by the time Adam Morgan encountered a Reds reliever pinch-hitting for another Reds reliever in the sixth inning at a deserted ballpark. Morgan, the 12th pitcher on a 12-man staff, was tasked with keeping a tie game close. He threw Michael Lorenzen a tempting fastball. It landed 420 feet from home plate.
For the next three innings in a 7-4 Phillies loss Thursday, the ball sat undisturbed on the small grass berm beyond the center-field wall at Great American Ball Park, a reminder that this season could be another long one.
The Phillies lost on a pinch-hit home run by a pitcher.
"I think about last year starting the season 0-4 and getting swept here," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "At least we managed to salvage one here. We could have won three. We're going to go home and start all over."
The seeds for the second loss in three games were planted before Morgan entered. Clay Buchholz slogged through five innings. His fastball lacked life. He permitted four runs on seven hits and two walks, and it could have been much worse had he not faced the lineup of a rebuilding team.
The Phillies made a $13.5 million wager on Buchholz, 32, as a bounce-back candidate for the rotation. His first impression was uneven.
"It could have gone a lot better," Buchholz said. "It could have gone a lot worse in a couple of situations."
This game carried an odd feel. The temperature dropped 30 degrees from Wednesday, and a stiff wind blew in from the Ohio River. Rain showers started and stopped during the entire nine innings. The Reds announced a paid attendance of 10,586; something closer to one-fourth of that figure dotted the red seats.
Lorenzen's home run was the first pinch-hit homer hit by a major-league pitcher since Micah Owings, also of the Reds, did it in 2009. Lorenzen was a two-way star at Cal State Fullerton. He homered last season, too. Morgan said the Phillies did not review Lorenzen in scouting meetings; he still knew he was a hitter.
"It never sits well when you give up a home run, but I kind of did it to myself," Morgan said. "I fell behind. It only can go up from here."
Morgan, the last Phillies reliever to make his season debut, was on the mound because Buchholz sputtered.
"He just made some bad pitches," Mackanin said of Buchholz. "I didn't want him to go out there for another inning because it looked like they were sitting on pitches."
Buchholz generated three swings and misses in his 77 pitches. He often pitched backward, ditching his fastball for off-speed pitches. In the later innings, he started most batters with first-pitch curveballs.
"Just from watching the first two games of the series, they have a lot of guys going up there and swinging," Buchholz said. "It's tough to make yourself throw a fastball. If it's just off the plate, you start 1-0. If you miss, and it's too much on the plate, it could be a homer. That's Pitching 101. You have to try to keep the hitter off balance. That's sort of what I do now."
The veteran righthander is known as a slow starter. His career April ERA is 4.91, by far his worst month. But the diminished fastball velocity is a red flag. Buchholz, according to data from BrooksBaseball.net, averaged 92 mph with his fastball last April. The hardest pitch he threw Thursday was 91.5 mph, according to Statcast.
It was especially cold - 43 degrees at first pitch - and that can mess with a pitcher. But questions about Buchholz's stuff will linger.
The bundled fans who stayed until the end chanted "Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!" as rookie Andrew Knapp batted in the ninth. He took a called strike three. Hundreds of people cheered. The Phillies had struck out at least 12 times for the second straight game. With the 11th, everyone in attendance won free pizza. The Phillies settled for a charter flight home.