The chance to see greatness was met with a collective yawn.

On one side at steamy Citizens Bank Park, you had Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner building a nice resume for a fourth that would pretty much seal his place as a future Hall of Famer. On the other side, you had Aaron Nola, a 25-year-old Louisianian who has forced his way into this year's Cy Young Award conversation.

Oh, yeah, and, in case you have not heard, the Phillies are in a pennant race, too.

Knowing all that, it was impossible to describe the ballpark in South Philly as anything other than half empty Tuesday night during the Phillies' latest jarring fall-from-ahead loss to the Washington Nationals. The attendance of 21,083 in a ballpark that used to draw more than 40,000 every time it opened its gates was an absolute embarrassment. It was fewer people than had attended the game the night before, which had been the smallest crowd since June 19 against St. Louis.

You can make all the excuses you want: It was the first day of school in a lot of places and it was really hot and the Phillies have not been playing good baseball for the last three weeks. That's all true, but this was still Scherzer vs. Nola. This was the best of the best, and great baseball fans in a great baseball city should want to see it.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, the crowd was not the biggest disappointment during their 5-4 loss.

No, that came in the ninth inning when the manager who thinks he does not need a closer watched another game his team should have won turn into a painful loss.

Gabe Kapler waits for officials to review the final play of the game, in which pinch runner Vince Velasquez left the bag too early on a fly out and got called out to end the ninth inning.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Gabe Kapler waits for officials to review the final play of the game, in which pinch runner Vince Velasquez left the bag too early on a fly out and got called out to end the ninth inning.

After Nola delivered seven more brilliant innings and made another statement as to why he deserves this year's Cy Young Award, the Phillies' veteran bullpen duo of Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek imploded. Hunter walked Bryce Harper to open the inning and Anthony Rendon followed with a two-run homer into the left-field seats.

What should have been Nola's 16th win turned into the Phillies' 14th loss in 21 games.

"Yeah, I mean it's tough," Nola said. "We've had our fair share of losses this month and a loss like this stings pretty bad. But we're going to keep on fighting. It's not over. We're four games back or so."

It's 4 1/2 after Atlanta ended Tampa Bay's eight-game winning streak Tuesday, but the growing deficit was not Nola's fault.

He struck out eight, including Harper three times, and won the personal battle against Scherzer, who lasted just five innings. It matched Scherzer's shortest outing of the season on April 4 in Atlanta.

Odubel Herrera, who had provided the winning margin with a two-run home run against Scherzer six days earlier, homered again Tuesday, sending a 2-2 fastball into the right-field seats for the game's first run. Whatever problems Herrera has had over the last few months, he still seems to have Scherzer's number. The centerfielder is a career .341 hitter (14-for-41) off Scherzer with two home runs and six extra-base hits.

Nola did allow a couple runs in the seventh, but only one was earned, with the other scoring on a throwing error by first baseman Carlos Santana. A good throw by Santana would have nailed Rendon at the plate and allowed Nola to pitch seven shutout innings.

Regardless, Nola still reduced his ERA to 2.10, the lowest it has been since it was at 1.99 on May 13. Scherzer's  ERA went from 2.13 to 2.22. In addition to the Herrera home run, Scherzer also gave up a two-run shot to Jorge Alfaro in the fifth inning after Scott Kingery had reached on a bunt single. By Scherzer's standards, it was an OK performance that should have dropped him to third in this year's Cy Young Award conversation.

Even though he is pitching for a team that is headed nowhere, the New York Mets'  Jacob deGrom is probably still the leading candidate. He went into his start Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs with a major-league low 1.71 ERA and lowered it to 1.68 by allowing a single run in eight innings in a start against Cole Hamels.

The stakes being so high for the Phillies, Nola probably would have earned some extra credit for beating Scherzer twice in six days, but that all went up in smoke for the Phillies in the ninth when the bullpen squandered the lead and one of their starting pitchers (Vince Velasquez) made a monumental base-running blunder to end the game.

Just another disappointing August night in a half-empty ballpark.

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