Hours before the smallest crowd to attend a game at Citizens Bank Park in more than six years watched the Phillies bumble toward another loss - this one by 6-2 to Milwaukee on Thursday - Ryan Howard wanted to correct misguided notions. There is no reason to panic, he said. It is too early. The proof, he said, was beyond the numbers.
"We've had a couple of mistakes that have cost us games," Howard said before batting practice. "But in all actuality, we've actually played very well this year. I disagree with everyone else. Our record doesn't reflect that right now, but I think we've played well."
But another sobering night lowered the Phillies to 3-6, which marks their worst nine-game start since 2007. They lost with their ace, Cliff Lee, pitching. The Brewers, who dominated the Phillies in every possible manner, mashed 38 hits during this three-game sweep.
"But the good news," manager Ryne Sandberg said, "is they're going out of town."
It does not look rosier Friday. Miami will start Jose Fernandez, the 21-year-old wunderkind with 30 career major-league starts and 43 earned runs allowed. The Phillies scored once against him in 18 innings last season.
This is the uninspired start the Phillies wanted to avoid. Apathy, which manifested itself once again in the blue seats, was bolstered by the first nine games. The announced paid attendance of 25,492 was the smallest in South Philadelphia since Sept. 11, 2007. Adam Eaton started that night, and visions of a World Series parade were mere dreams.
There was hope Thursday because Lee started. He was removed, though, at 96 pitches and six innings. His spot was due up to start the sixth, and Cesar Hernandez pinch-hit because the Phillies trailed by two. Hernandez struck out on three pitches.
"If we had given him a little run support early," Sandberg said, "you never know how that changes things."
Said Marlon Byrd: "We have to figure out a way to put it together some way, somehow."
The Phillies rallied for one sixth-inning run to slice Milwaukee's lead in half. So Jeff Manship - who started the season as the team's mop-up man but rocketed to the top of the lackluster righthanded relief depth chart - was instructed to keep the game close. He faced three hitters. All three reached base. All three scored.
Lefthander Jake Diekman, who pitched for the sixth time in nine games, permitted his two inherited runners to score on a bloop single and sacrifice fly.
The fastball-hungry Brewers did not require help from a porous Phillies defense to crack Lee. He allowed eight hits, four of which went for extra bases. Jonathan Lucroy attacked a first-pitch fastball for a two-out double in the sixth. Khris Davis swung and missed at the first two fastballs Lee threw him. He fouled off the third. And he crushed the fourth to deep right for a run-scoring double. Lee called the fourth fastball "a mistake."
"I'm not very happy with that decision," Lee said.
In the two-run fourth inning, both Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez smacked Lee cutters for hits. Davis plucked a curveball to right field for a run-scoring single.
Lee cruised through the first three innings. He struck out the side on 13 pitches in the second. But Lee's margin for error was negligible. Brewers righthander Marco Estrada fanned six in six innings. He weathered the sixth-inning threat when Domonic Brown flied to center to leave the bases loaded.
Milwaukee swept the Phillies for the first time ever in Philadelphia. Cody Asche, the 12th and final Phillie to strike out, fell to one knee on his swing. That prompted a smattering of boos, but the silence was most overwhelming.