ATLANTA -- Jonathan Papelbon quietly packed his red Phillies travel bag in the visitor's clubhouse Sunday night at Turner Field.
He had an empty look on his face.
The closer had just served up a three-run home run to Braves third baseman Chipper Jones in the bottom of the ninth inning in a brutal 8-7 loss. Papelbon is paid big money to close games, so any time he blows one he is upset.
But this one had a different feeling, because it prevented the Phillies from sweeping the series and quelled any loose talk they could creep back into National League Wild Card contention with a month to play.
"We won the series, but so what?" manager Charlie Manuel said. "We had a chance to sweep them. We need to win all the games we can. That's a tough game. That's hard to swallow."
The Phillies would have moved within seven games of the Wild Card leaders with 28 games to play. The Cardinals currently hold the second Wild Card spot, eight games ahead of Philadelphia. St. Louis is on pace to finish 87-75. If the Cards keep that pace, the Phillies would need to finish 23-5 (.821) to tie.
Even if the second Wild Card winner finishes with a more manageable 84 wins, the Phillies would need to finish 20-8 (.714) to tie.
"I can't speak for the rest of the team, but I haven't sat here and said, 'We need to do this, this and this to get back in the Wild Card,'" Papelbon said when asked if the Wild Card has been on anybody's mind. "I think, for me, I'm just trying to execute my pitches and do my job. Let everything else fall into place."
"That's not in my head," Cole Hamels said, answering the same question. "My head is to go out and win a ballgame. Now it's wining in five days from now."
The Phillies started the bottom of the ninth inning holding a commanding 7-3 lead. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. But left-hander Jeremy Horst allowed a single to Reed Johnson before walking Paul Janish to put runners on first and second with one out. Janish is hitting just .197 this season, and just .137 against the Phillies. But seven of his 15 walks have come against Philadelphia.
This one proved to be the biggest.
Papelbon replaced Horst and struck out Lyle Overbay for the second out before he walked Michael Bourn to load the bases.
Martin Prado followed and hit a chopper up the third-base line. It could have been a game-ending play, but Phillies third baseman Kevin Frandsen couldn't get his glove on the ball. It deflected off the glove, scooted into left field and two runs scored to make it 7-5.
"The ball was floating there," Frandsen said. "It was on a tee. I didn't make the play. There were no bad hops. Nothing. It was right there."
The hometown scorer ruled the ball a double. Hit or error, the Phillies still had a two-run lead with two outs and a chance to win the game. Papelbon just needed to get past Jones. But Papelbon threw the veteran slugger three straight fastballs, and Jones didn't miss the third. He crushed the pitch into the right-center field stands for the game-winner.
"I threw the pitch I wanted," Papelbon said. "I'm the pitcher. I throw the pitch I want."
"He threw him another fastball right there and it was exactly the same spot and he didn't miss it," Prado said. "That's what the greatest hitters do. They just don't miss. Even if they don't miss the first time, you cannot throw the same place with the next pitch. That's why he's a Hall of Famer."
Jones enjoyed the moment against a team he has tormented for years.
"Nothing beats that," he said. "That's as good as it gets for a baseball player, to walk off the field -- especially in that situation, where we were really down and out."
The optimism of the Phillies' chances of a late run at a Wild Card berth dissipated the second the ball landed in the seats.
Sure, the Phillies trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 to play in 2007 before finishing 13-4 to win the NL East. Sure, the Cardinals trailed the Braves by 9 1/2 games following their 134th contest last season before finishing 20-8 to win the Wild Card. But the Phillies had to catch just one team in 2007. The Cardinals had to catch just two in 2011.
The Phillies need to catch five.
And now it gets a lot harder.
"I never think I'm too far out," Manuel said. "I think we proved that a few years ago when we caught the Mets with 17 left. It makes it tough. It was our game."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.