HOUSTON — It was 5 p.m. Thursday when a stream of Phillies players gathered around the visiting dugout at Minute Maid Park. A stretch time of 5:10 p.m. was written on a whiteboard, but almost all 29 active players were early and formed a cluster of red in a darkened dome.
"I haven't seen this all year," one player quipped.
These Phillies had more life than ever when their assault on the National League brought them here, where moribund baseball is played, only for it to crumple in a 6-4 loss to hapless Houston. The seven-game winning streak that transformed an irrelevant team into contenders was halted.
A maelstrom formed in the eighth inning when rookie Phillippe Aumont was called for his fifth appearance in five days. The Phillies had stranded 11 runners on base through eight innings. Starter Tyler Cloyd lasted only three innings, necessitating extensive bullpen usage.
That meant Aumont for the eighth, which had been a winning formula until Thursday. He walked two and hit another. Fellow rookie Jake Diekman entered to clean the mess and permitted a two-run double to Jed Lowrie, batting for only the fourth time since July 14.
The defeat dropped the Phillies to 3 1/2 games back of the second wild-card berth, awaiting the outcome of a series opener between St. Louis and Los Angeles — two teams above them.
The bullpen, once this team's weakest unit, enjoyed a renaissance until the fateful eighth. Phillies relievers had thrown 201/3 straight scoreless innings. Houston, 12-45 since the all-star break and outscored by a 136-run margin, made for a formidable opponent.
Charlie Manuel will not rest easy knowing his team blew a winnable game. The Astros gifted two Phillies runs in the third inning. Before that, Erik Kratz snapped an 0-for-16 skid with a run-scoring double and Ryan Howard contributed a sacrifice fly.
But that was all.
Cloyd retired the first six batters in a row, three of them on strikeouts. Houston loaded the bases in the third on two soft singles and a hit batter. Cloyd coerced a weak Brett Wallace swing on an outside change-up and the inning was over with a bouncer to second.
It soured in the fourth when the first two Astros reached on singles and bullpen activity commenced. Rookie Matt Dominguez launched a three-run homer into the short left-field porch and Manuel sprang from the dugout as Dominguez crossed home plate.
Cloyd was pitching on short rest and barely expended himself in 65 pitches. Before the game, Manuel would not say how long of a leash Cloyd had.