No one is immune to the Phillies' free fall. Not even Aaron Nola.
Thirty-nine days since the Phillies last won a series, with their playoff hopes fading faster than a scoop of ice cream on the late-summer pavement, they looked to their young ace to be a lifeline once again Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park. Instead, Nola gave up two more home runs, a recurring trend over his last three starts, and didn't reach the sixth inning for only the fourth time in 34 starts dating to last season.
Another game went up in smoke, 5-1 to the Washington Nationals, and so too, in all likelihood, did Nola's chances of capping his breakthrough season by winning the Cy Young Award. The Phillies were swept in the three-game series, part of a five-game losing streak and a stretch of nine losses in 11 games.
"The baseball gods aren't on our side right now," Nola said. "I feel like stuff's not going our way right now as it was earlier in the year. But we need to just keep pushing forward, keep moving forward. We've got a decent amount of games left."
Seventeen, to be exact, and the Phillies are 7 ½ games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves. If that predicament sounds familiar, it's because the Phillies were seven games back with 17 to play on this exact date in 2007 before going 13-4 down the stretch and overtaking the New York Mets to win the National League East crown.
Don't hold your breath for history to repeat.
Not only don't these Phillies have Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but they also have lost 23 of their last 34 games. They're 74-71, the closest they have been to .500 since June 15. If they finish 13-4, as they did in 2007, the Braves would have to go only 5-11 to tie them. Atlanta's magic number to clinch the division is 10.
"We are going to fight until the very end," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We are not going to stop looking for value at the margins. We're not going to stop looking for any advantages that we can get. That's going to be our focus going forward."
But the Phillies also should take a peek in their rear-view mirror. They are only a half-game ahead of the third-place Nationals, who might be the most disappointing team in baseball this year but still dealt a giant blow to the Phils' playoff chances by beating them in seven of nine games since Aug. 21.
"Their lineup is exceptional. We always knew that," said Kapler, adding that "Bryce Harper might be the best player in baseball," a compliment to file away for when Harper reaches free agency two months from now.
In 26 of his 30 starts this season, Nola has allowed three runs or fewer. He gave up three runs in the first inning against the Nationals, who grabbed a 2-0 lead three batters into the game when Harper crushed a two-run homer to center field. Anthony Rendon followed with a double and scored on a two-out single by Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman made it 4-0 in the fourth inning with a homer into the shrubbery in straightaway center field. Considering the Phillies got only five hits — three from shortstop J.P. Crawford in his first major-league start since June 19 — the lead was locked down. The Phillies' run came on Crawford's homer in the fifth inning.
Through his first 27 starts, Nola allowed a total of eight home runs in 176 innings. Over his last three starts, he has given up a total of seven homers in 17 2/3 innings. Fatigue could be a factor. Nola has worked 193 2/3 innings, 25 2/3 more than his previous career high.
"I feel fine right now, honestly," Nola said. "It's pitches that, earlier in the year and in the middle of the year, guys were missing those. Right now they're not missing. It gets frustrating."
Would the Phillies consider shutting down their ace after they inevitably are eliminated from playoff contention? Would their ace consent to getting shut down?
Neither Nola nor Kapler wanted to indulge in that hypothetical.
"I don't want to look at us not being in the race," Nola said.