A nine-game homestand that began with the Phillies surging into first place in the National League East ended with them falling out of the top spot in the division on Sunday.
The Phillies' 7-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Citizens Bank Park dropped them into second place, a game behind the Atlanta Braves, who won at Washington, 6-5.
The Phils had built a two-game lead in the division when they capped an eight-game winning streak with a three-game sweep of the New York Mets last weekend. After that, the Phils lost four of six to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Reds to surrender first place.
During their eight-game winning streak, the Phils averaged 10 hits, including two homers, and 6.9 runs per game.
In the last six games, they averaged just six hits and 2.5 runs per game and hit a total of three homers.
The competition toughened up and wins became a lot tougher to get. There are 44 games remaining.
"To be successful, you have to beat good pitching," manager Joe Girardi said. "Because there's a lot of good pitchers, and we've faced a lot of good pitchers as of late. Every day is a challenge. I don't care who you're playing and how that team is playing. Every day is a challenge. You have to grind out at-bats."
The Phillies, 61-57, have a day off Monday before beginning an important six-game trip to Arizona and San Diego on Tuesday. The road has not been kind to the Phillies the last few seasons. They are 25-32 away from home this season.
After getting an unexpectedly clutch performance from spot starter Matt Moore in beating the Reds on Saturday, the Phils needed another big effort from Aaron Nola to win the series Sunday. They did not get one. Nola's disappointing season continued as he failed to get out of the fifth inning.
"It's frustrating," Girardi said of falling to second place. "But we have to put it behind us, go to Arizona and get off on the right foot.
"You start off (the homestand) 3-0 and then you lose a couple tough games to the Dodgers, then you win a tough one, then you lose a couple. You get a lift from Matt Moore and you're hoping you can close it out by winning another series. We didn't. It just makes it a little bit harder. But nothing's been easy so far."
Nola fell to 7-7 and his ERA swelled to 4.48. The Phillies are 11-13 in his 24 starts.
Nola gave up six hits and four runs in 4⅓ innings. He had trouble putting away hitters with two strikes. It was the 11th time in 24 starts that he has pitched five or fewer innings, though one of those outings was shortened by rain.
"I didn't command the baseball today and it hurt me," Nola said. "It's frustrating, especially going for a series win."
Nola entered the game with a 4.35 ERA, which ranked 42nd in the majors among 50 qualifying starters.
In his previous start, against the Dodgers on Tuesday, Nola was brilliant. He struck out seven of the first nine batters he faced before a rainstorm ended his night. He was unable to build on that outing in this one. He allowed a leadoff homer to Jonathan India on an 0-2 pitch, two more runs in the third and was charged with another after exiting in the fifth.
The Phillies desperately need Nola to turn things around for the stretch drive, but it's fair to wonder if he can or will. He's been inconsistent for 4½ months this season and has struggled in September throughout his career. In 27 September starts, he is 7-12 with a 4.28 ERA.
"Obviously, he's real important to us," Girardi said. "But so are the other four starters, too. It just doesn't fall on him. It falls on the whole team and all the coaches and everyone involved -- the manager, the trainers -- to get this done. Keeping people healthy. All that."
Nola's next start will come Saturday in San Diego. He believes he can turn his season around.
"I'm going to do everything I can in my will to do that," he said. "We don't have too much longer left in the regular season. It's kind of a sprint now. I believe it will always turn around and we can keep winning. I'll always believe that."
The Phils stayed close until the eighth inning when the Reds rallied for three two-out runs against Connor Brogdon and Hector Neris. Tucker Barnhart drove home the first of the runs with a double, one pitch after Brogdon appeared to have struck him out on a 1-2 changeup that would have ended the frame. Game data showed the pitch to be a strike, but home plate umpire Sean Barber called it a ball and Barnhart capitalized. The next batter, Tyler Stephenson, belted a two-run homer against Neris.
"That's a big miss," Girardi said of Brogdon's two-strike changeup. "Big miss."
The Reds had problems with Barber's strike zone earlier in the day. Nick Castellanos was called out on strikes in the first inning and ejected for arguing. Castellanos is an All-Star and one of the Reds' top hitters. His leaving the game was a break for the Phillies but they did not capitalize.
Now, they're in second place.
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