ATLANTA -- Bryce Harper did all he could. He almost willed the Phillies to victory Tuesday night with a sixth-inning RBI double, a seventh-inning RBI single and finally a dramatic two-run home run in the top of the ninth.
And what did the Phillies get for it?
Another infuriating bullpen implosion, another excruciating loss, and lots and lots of questions for Joe Girardi about his bullpen usage.
Despite Harper's heroics, the Phillies absorbed a 6-5 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, who rallied for the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the ninth after Harper had rescued his club from a one-run deficit in the top of the inning with a ballistic two-run homer against Braves closer Kenley Jansen.
The whole night was a struggle for the Phillies with starter Kyle Gibson running a high pitch count early in the game, with missed scoring opportunities and poor bullpen work from James Norwood, who retired none of the four batters he faced and allowed two runs in the sixth inning to run his ERA to 8.53.
Harper's go-ahead homer in the ninth was cathartic. He pumped his fist and shouted in joy as he rounded first base and again as he rounded second.
"I was fired up for the whole team," he said afterward. "I was ready to get back to the dugout and celebrate."
The celebration was short-lived.
Girardi sent right-hander Nick Nelson back to the mound for a second inning of work with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth and he could not hold it.
Dansby Swanson doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch. The tying run then scored on a sacrifice fly by Ronald Acuña Jr. that center fielder Roman Quinn, with some assistance from right fielder Nick Castellanos, grossly misplayed into an error that allowed Acuña Jr. to end up on second, setting up William Contreras for a game-winning single.
As the Braves danced on the field, the Phillies trudged off with a loss that rivaled the one they suffered on May 5 when they blew a 7-1 lead against the Mets and also the one they suffered May 15 in Dodger Stadium when they were one strike away from a four-game sweep and blew the lead.
"Just a tough one," Harper said. "We can't keep doing it. We've got to win games. A game like that -- we've got to win a game like that."
The Phillies played the late innings with one hand tied behind their back. Actually, three of them.
Closer Corey Knebel was not available to pitch because he'd worked the previous two days, Monday in a non-save situation, and Girardi has a policy of not using relievers three days in a row because it's a long season and, "The prize is in October," as he says.
"He had a really tough inning Sunday," Girardi said of Knebel. "Yesterday he threw. It's early in the year. I just ... no."
In a clubhouse hallway after the game, Girardi was seen speaking with Knebel.
Moments later, Knebel was asked about his availability.
"I was down," he said. "It's early in the season."
Was he in agreement with that?
"Yep," he said.
OK, how about Seranthony Dominguez, who had Monday off after throwing a total of 37 pitches on Saturday and Sunday? Couldn't he have closed?
"He wasn't (available)," Girardi said. "Corey was not available. (Jeurys) Familia was not available. (Jose) Alvarado was available but they had a string of right-handed hitters coming up and Nellie had just thrown the ball extremely well (in the eighth).
"We were short, really short tonight in the bullpen."
Dominguez is a Tommy John surgery survivor. Girardi said the right-hander's health was fine.
"Seranthony should be back tomorrow," Girardi said. "He just needed another day."
Harper is playing with a ligament tear in his elbow. After the loss, he was asked about having to go to war without some of the team's biggest bullpen weapons.
"That's how the game works," he said. "That's how the game has been since I've been playing. When a guy is down, a guy is down. There's nothing I can do."
Except maybe next time drive in six runs, or maybe eight, depending on the depth of the bullpen that night.
Tuesday night's horrible loss left the Phillies at 20-23, eight games behind the first-place Mets as they take the field to play the Braves again Wednesday night.
The good news is they'll have some rested arms in their bullpen.
Subscribe to Phillies Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | Watch on YouTube