Philadelphia's string of five consecutive playoff appearances, the longest active streak in the Major Leagues and tied for the third longest since division play began in 1969, could officially end on Friday in Miami. After Thursday's defeat, the Phillies' next loss or St. Louis Cardinals win will eliminate the five-time defending National League East champions from the postseason.
Though they are likely to miss out on playing meaningful October baseball for the first time since 2006, the Phillies can take some solace in their late-season comeback to re-enter the NL Wild Card race.
"We were what, 14 games under .500? I think we're right around .500, somewhere in there," Ryan Howard said. "I don't think a lot of people thought we'd get back to that. We competed. We never gave up. I don't think a lot of people thought we would be in contention for even being mentioned to be in a playoff hunt, so if you're looking for a positive, look at that."
Tyler Cloyd (2-2) endured the worst start of his brief Major League career on Thursday, allowing six runs on six hits, including three home runs, over five-plus innings. The dagger came in the sixth inning, on a two-run blast by Michael Morse that landed in the Nationals' bullpen -- an estimated 448 feet -- and made the score 6-3.
The Phillies showed life early, bouncing back from an early 1-0 deficit to take a two-run lead after the first inning. Darin Ruf, starting in left field for the third straight night, smacked a three-run double off talented left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who needed 37 pitches to get through the inning.
But after that, Gonzalez held the Phillies at bay en route to becoming baseball's first 21-game winner this season. A top candidate for the National League Cy Young Award, Gonzalez (21-8) allowed just the three runs over six innings, striking out six and walking three.
"Gio about gave me a heart attack the first two innings," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "I was thinking, 'My goodness, he's gonna have 100 pitches after three.' But he came to me after he got through two -- luckily, he got through two only giving up three runs -- and said, 'Skip, I got this. Stay with me.' And I said, 'I plan on it.'"
Morse, Washington's left fielder, homered twice and drove in four runs. Bryce Harper went yard for the second straight night and knocked in two runs, including the go-ahead score on a single in the fifth inning.
A positive for Philadelphia was that Ruf went 2-for-3, giving the newest Phillie five hits in his first 13 Major League at-bats. Kevin Frandsen also chipped in two hits, improving his average to a blistering .453 against left-handed pitching this season.
Including Thursday's sellout on Fan Appreciation Day, the Phillies finished with a total regular-season attendance of 3,565,718, the fourth most in club history, and sold out 62 of their 81 home games. However, the results on the field of the past five years could not be replicated.
"That's hard to take," Manuel said of the sub-.500 home record. "It's hard to take any time you lose. We don't come here to lose. We don't come here to be second."
The Phillies have six games left -- three in Miami and three more against the Nationals in Washington -- but many fans are already looking ahead to next season. Asked if he thinks the team has what it takes to bounce back next season, Howard responded: "Most definitely."
"I think what it is is guys going home this offseason and getting healthy," he said. "[Roy Halladay] wasn't healthy. I wasn't healthy. Chase [Utley] wasn't healthy. We've had a rash of injuries. And I think that what people have seen these last couple of months with us kind of making this run, I think it shows what we're capable of."