ATLANTA -- It cannot keep happening. But it keeps happening.
Harper’s two-run home run to right field against Atlanta closer Kenley Jansen with one out in the ninth handed the Phils a one-run lead. It was another clutch moment from the reigning National League MVP, who pumped his fists and shouted as he ran the bases.
Harper could not wait to celebrate with his teammates in the dugout. He could not wait to celebrate a victory.
But in the blink of an eye, the Phillies lost another game in excruciating fashion.
“We can’t keep doing it,” Harper said. “We’ve got to win games. Baseball happens, you win, you lose. It’s part of the game, but a game like that -- we’ve got to win a game like that.”
The Phillies seem to have losses like this every month. They blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park on May 5. They were one strike from sweeping the Dodgers in a four-game series at Dodger Stadium on May 15, but they lost.
Nine days later, they spoiled Harper’s heroics with another ninth-inning collapse.
Losses like this are painful, but this one proved perplexing in the moment. None of Philadelphia’s best relievers were available, manager Joe Girardi said.
Closer Corey Knebel threw nine pitches on Monday and 23 pitches on Sunday. Knebel waved his hand and mumbled that he was unavailable, when asked. Jeurys Familia threw 23 pitches on Monday. Girardi said he was unavailable. Seranthony Domínguez threw 11 pitches on Sunday and 26 pitches on Saturday. Girardi said he was unavailable, too.
“We were short, really short tonight in the bullpen,” Girardi said.
Girardi does not like to use relief pitchers three consecutive days, especially early in the season. The risk of injury is too severe. He did not consider making an exception following Harper’s homer.
“It’s early in the year, I just … no,” Girardi said.
“I think that’s how the game works,” Harper said. “I just think that’s how the game’s always been or since I’ve been playing. When a guy’s down, a guy’s down. There’s nothing I can do.”
José Alvarado was available. He has 20 career saves, but he has been wildly inconsistent this season. He warmed up in the ninth, but with a string of right-handers scheduled to hit, Girardi felt most comfortable with right-hander Nick Nelson, who struck out two in a scoreless eighth.
It would be the first save opportunity of Nelson’s career.
“I knew right away if we tied or went ahead that I was going back out,” Nelson said. “I was staying locked in. I was trying to keep myself calm through it all, but it was cool being in that spot.”
Dansby Swanson laced an 0-1 fastball into the right-field corner for a leadoff double. He advanced to third on a wild pitch. He scored the tying run when Ronald Acuña Jr. lofted a fly ball to center field that fell between Nick Castellanos and Roman Quinn.
Acuña cruised into second on the error.
“It’s just got to be caught,” Quinn said. “I’ve got to catch that ball.”
At that moment, a victory felt imminent for the Braves.
“It felt like this is the moment right here,” Atlanta designated hitter William Contreras said. “I looked at Ronald and kind of motioned to him like, ‘This is it, we’re going to win it right here. So be ready.’”
Contreras laced a 1-1 changeup to center field to score Acuña to win it.
“I’m feeling not great,” Nelson said. “I don’t want to feel this way again.”
There were other moments in this game, of course. James Norwood allowed a go-ahead homer to Matt Olson to start the sixth. He then loaded the bases with no outs. Atlanta scored one more. Harper, who went 3-for-5 with four RBIs, knocked in another run in the seventh to cut the deficit to one.
“You don’t like the outcome,” Harper said. “I know there are a lot of people in there who are pretty upset. But we’ve got to turn the page. You can’t sulk. We’ve got a game tomorrow. … If you want to be a championship-caliber team, you can’t let that happen. You can’t let it creep into tomorrow. It’s got to be done tonight. Leave it in there and don’t take it with you.”