"Honestly, I've just been coming to the park loving to play, letting all the rest go," said Pence, who has heard his share of boos recently for his inconsistency at the plate and shaky play in the field. "Sometimes the fans love me, sometimes the fans hate me, but I always love them. It had weighed on me a little too much. ... I love to play the game. I'm going to go out there and give everything. I think that's the main thing. It's just getting out of the way of myself."
It would have been an obvious blow to lose Tuesday. The Phillies had not played this deep into a season without a three-game winning streak since 1992, when they won their third straight in their 39th game. It took the 2012 Phils 37 games, a year after winning 102.
Philadelphia (18-19) can move to .500 for the first time since May 3 with a victory Wednesday against the Cubs.
Cliff Lee has not picked up a win since Sept. 26, but he can't be blamed for that. He has a 1.95 ERA in five starts this season, but the Phillies scored a combined three runs in his first three starts, including a 1-0 loss in San Francisco on April 18 when he threw 10 scoreless innings. The bullpen blew a 4-2 lead last Wednesday against the Mets, prompting manager Charlie Manuel to rip into his players for their uninspired play.
And then Tuesday happened.
"That's something that's out of my control," Lee said. "All I can do is control what I can control."
Lee allowed five hits, one run, one walk and struck out 10 batters in eight innings, handing the bullpen a 3-1 lead.
Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon had pitched the previous three games, making him unavailable Tuesday. On Monday, he closed out a 5-1 victory, even after the Phils scored a couple of insurance runs in the eighth to make the ninth inning a non-save situation.
That Papelbon still pitched is not terribly unusual. The Phillies often have relievers pitch once they are warmed up.
"He was already warmed up," Manuel said. "He was already hot. I figured we'd bring him in. That's exactly what we thought."
This time, it cost them.
Some pitchers say they prefer to pitch after they have warmed up, but Papelbon said he has no preference.
"I can do whatever, man," he said. "I can sit down. I can get up and pitch. It makes no difference to me. I've told Charlie and [pitching coach Rich] Dubee and those guys, 'I trust you guys. Whatever you guys need me to do, I'm here to do.' I'm pretty versatile in doing my job, getting up, getting down, going in save [situations], going in non-save [situations]. I can pretty much do whatever."
Without Papelbon, the Phillies turned to Qualls, who allowed four hits and two runs in two-thirds of an inning to blow his second save of the season. That made the Phils' offensive shortcomings in the eighth stand out even more. They had runners on first and third and nobody out, but were unable to score an insurance run.
Qualls, who is the team's unofficial setup man, now has a 7.36 ERA in his past nine appearances dating back to April 24.
Houston cut its deficit to 3-2 when Justin Maxwell doubled and scored on Carlos Lee's one-out single to center field. Pinch-runner Brian Bogusevic then stole second when J.D. Martinez singled to right field. Astros third-base coach Dave Clark held Bogusevic at third as Pence fielded the ball, but then Pence dropped the ball as he was getting ready to throw it back to the infield. Bogusevic hesitated for a moment, but the ball got far enough away from Pence that he had plenty of time to run home safely to tie the game.
"It was softly hit, so I was charging it hard," Pence said. "I can't really tell you. It just came out of my hand. I was trying to fire it as hard as I could."
Said Qualls: "I was kind of throwing too hard. I looked at some of the velocities. They were really up there. The ball that Martinez hit, it was just a really flat sinker that came back over the plate. I've got to make a better pitch than that."
Rookie left-hander Jake Diekman, who was making his Major League debut, got the Phillies out of the inning when he struck out Marwin Gonzalez. Diekman struck out two more batters in the 10th and ended up with his first big league win.
"I couldn't feel my legs when I was running up to the mound," Diekman said. "The first pitch was terrifying. I just didn't want to throw it to the backstop. The warmup pitches helped out a lot. I really wanted to throw a first-pitch strike."
Pence hit a 2-1 cutter from Astros closer Brett Myers over the wall in left field to win it.
"I honestly thought it was going to fall in front of the left fielder or be a sliding catch," Myers said. "I didn't think he hit it good at all. It didn't sound good off the bat."
"It was nice to be able to redeem [myself] a little bit," Pence said.