HOUSTON -- When a magical ride is interrupted ...
"I hate to look at it sometimes," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, "but [with] the percentages in baseball, sooner or later you're going to get beat."
Down the hallway, first baseman Ryan Howard spoke softly.
"It's just one of those things," he said. "Unfortunately, we dropped this game. But we've got to come back tomorrow and try to get back on the right track."
Still, it stung.
"At the same time, that doesn't mean it had to happen tonight," Manuel said. "We had a chance to win the game, and it was sitting right there in front of us."
The Phils rolled into Minute Maid Park on a 20-9 run that had improbably gotten them back into contention. Suddenly, they were just three games behind the Cardinals in the race for the National League's second Wild Card berth.
After five months of injury and disappointment, the Phillies never expected to be in this place. That they kept going hard speaks volumes, not just about Manuel's leadership, but about the character of the players, their drive, etc.
"We're all professionals here," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "We've got a lot of veterans on this team. I don't accept myself not being the best player I can be. I think that's basically the attitude everybody has taken. I want to be prepared and do my part."
Philadelphia had climbed into contention with nearly air-tight starting pitching and with a bullpen that includes five rookies.
Offensively, Jimmy Rollins had gotten hot, John Mayberry Jr. had taken advantage of his playing time and there was just enough of this and that to support all that pitching.
Then just when the Phillies were close enough to see the possibilities, they suffered a bad night at the office. Their margin of error is so small with just 18 games remaining that every defeat hurts a little more.
They ran up a 4-0 lead on the Astros on Thursday night at Minute Maid Park, but rookie starter Tyler Cloyd couldn't get out of the fourth inning and a bullpen that hadn't allowed a run in 16 1/3 innings had a tough night.
The Astros rode a Jed Lowrie two-run pinch-hit double in the bottom of the eighth inning to a 6-4 victory.
At 72-72, the Phillies are again four games out in the race for the second Wild Card berth thanks to the Cardinals' defeat of the Dodgers. The Phils have four teams to pass in the standings.
If the math sounds unlikely, that's irrelevant. The Rays and Cards paid little attention to the math last year around this time, and the Phillies say they don't care about it, either.
"We've got to ride it as long as we can," left-hander Cliff Lee said. "It's been a disappointing season. At this point, there's nothing we can do about it. Just continue to play."
Philadelphia's starters had a 3.01 ERA in the 29 games before Thursday's. Lee has six straight quality starts and a 1.73 ERA during that time. Likewise, Kyle Kendrick also has six straight quality starts and a 1.49 ERA.
The Phils still have a hard time scoring runs many nights, but the Rays and A's are a constant reminder that teams can ride great pitching a long way.
"When we were 14 games under .500, it seemed like there was no chance," Lee said. "At the same time, you still want to play the season out and try to win each day. We've done that and kind of got ourselves back in it and having a chance."
Even after five straight NL East championships, this season may end up being one of Manuel's finest hours regardless of how it plays out.
"It feels good to know we're still playing for something," Manuel said, "and we've got a chance and we're definitely right in the middle of it. I give the players the credit. It's their attitude and who they are and how they think it counts. In this game, that's sometimes hard to find enough of those kinds of guys to keep that mindset."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.