By the time it was over and nearly four hours had passed, it was difficult to remember that the potential for something thrilling was brewing in the thick South Philadelphia air early Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. Aaron Nola struck out two of the four batters he faced in the first inning, and then struck out the side in the second before fanning two more hitters to start the third.

Nine Chicago Cubs up and seven down via the whiff.

"I thought especially the way Nola came out firing, it kind of looked like we were going to see something historic today with the way he was getting after their hitters," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said.

In the bottom of the first, the white-hot Roman Quinn led off with a line shot into the left-center field gap and there's nothing quite like watching the Phillies outfielder run the bases these days. What was a sure double for most hitters looked like a potential triple to Quinn and when the ball was bobbled briefly in left field it was his cue to head for third.

Quinn was thrown out. Nola's string of six straight strikeouts ended with Daniel Murphy fouling off a couple of two-strike pitches before hitting a high fastball for a home run into the right-field seats for the game's first run. Three hours later, we had not seen anything historic. We had, in fact, seen the same thing we have been watching from the Phillies for the last month.

They failed once again to win a series, losing the Sunday finale against the Cubs, 8-1. Most of the 36,517 fans had departed by the time this game ended at 5:16 p.m. with the exception of a large contingent dressed in blue sitting behind the visiting dugout. They know their team is headed to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Gabe Kapler’s team has been struggling as the playoff race begins to intensify.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Gabe Kapler’s team has been struggling as the playoff race begins to intensify.

The Phillies, on the other hand, appear to be running on fumes as they attempt to end a six-year playoff drought. They have not won a series since sweeping a four-game set from the Miami Marlins at the start of last month. At that time, they led the National League East and were averaging 4.4 runs per game. Since then, they are 9-16 and averaging just 3.6 runs per game. They managed just four total runs in the three games against the Cubs and went 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

Panic anyone? Urgency perhaps?

"I think you know at this point we don't get deflated," Kapler said. "It's just not who we are as a club. We're stronger mentally than that. We understand you can go through long periods of struggles and still come out on the other end right where you need to be."

The manager and his team need to understand this: Only four weeks and 26 games remain in this season and if they do not turn things around soon, especially on the offensive end, then they will be on the outside looking in when Major League Baseball stages its postseason baseball tournament in October.

"Look, there's urgency to win every baseball game," Kapler said. "But I don't think it's like, 'Oh no, we're running out of time.' That's not our mind-set and it will not be our mind-set. Our mind-set will be laser-sharp focus on the step right in front of us. Winning the baseball game that's right in front of us and that's [Monday] afternoon in Miami."

Maybe the flight itinerary following Sunday's difficult-to-watch loss was exactly what the Phillies need. The Marlins are the second-worst team in the National League and this is a chance for the Phillies to end their one-month drought without winning a series while the Atlanta Braves deal with three games against the Boston Red Sox before embarking on a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco.

"At the end of this week, the most we can be back is four games," leftfielder Rhys Hoskins said as the Braves played their series finale with Pittsburgh in Atlanta. "So I think that coupled with the fact that we know we can play some better baseball, I think we're still feeling confident as we ever have."

That could be entirely true, but it did not make what transpired on the field Sunday any easier on the eyes. One moment the manager thought he was in for a treat from his ace pitcher and the perpetually positive Kapler still managed to be upbeat about a Nola performance that saw him surrender four runs for just the third time this season.

"Obviously it turned into an 11-punch out game against the National League's best offense," Kapler said. 'In a couple of ways, it was a really special performance by Nola and … you have to tip your cap to their hitters. They were excellent."

Anthony Rizzo and MVP candidate Javier Baez also hit solo home runs off Nola.

Kapler also defended Quinn's decision to try to take the extra base in the first even though the play resulted in the cardinal sin of making the first out of the inning at third base. It cost the Phillies a run because Jose Bautista and Carlos Santana later reached on one-out singles.

The Phillies did not score until hours later when the ballpark was mostly empty and the game was out of reach. Keep playing the way they have for the last month and soon the Braves will be out of reach, too.