ARLINGTON -- This had a familiar feel to it.
The Phillies played splendidly through eight and a half innings Wednesday night against the Rangers at Globe Life Park, carrying a two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. But Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon blew his first save of the season in a 4-3 loss, spoiling an opportunity to board the team's flight to Chicago feeling fine about what could have been its first series victory of the season.
"It's a long season," Papelbon said afterward. "One of the strong points of my game is being able to bounce back and not having any memory of the previous game, good or bad. I've just got to continue down the path."
But Papelbon's performance as closer has been a concern since last summer, one of many concerns surrounding the Phillies entering Spring Training. He blew seven saves last season and his 80.6 save percentage ranked 29th out of 32 qualifying closers. His fastball velocity has dropped nearly three mph from his final season in Boston in 2011 and his strikeout rate last season hit a career low. He averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings from 2007-12, but just 8.3 last season.
Papelbon came into camp in February upbeat and apparently healthy after battling a hip injury most of last season.
He seemed set to prove last year was an aberration.
But he has a 4.46 ERA, 16 saves and eight blown saves in 39 appearances from June 23, 2013, through Wednesday.
"Well, we'll see how it goes," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said, asked if he is concerned Wednesday is a continuation of a trend of troubles for his $50 million closer.
Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick pitched well in seven innings, allowing five hits, one run, one walk and striking out four in seven innings. Ryan Howard smacked a two-run home run to right-center field in the third inning against Rangers left-hander Robbie Ross Jr. to give the Phillies a 3-0 lead.
Left-hander Mario Hollands even redeemed himself nicely in the eighth inning. On Tuesday he faced the top of the Rangers lineup in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning, but walked two of the three batters he faced before the Rangers scored the winning run. On Wednesday, Hollands retired the same batters -- Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus and Prince Fielder -- in order.
Things took a turn for the worse from there.
Papelbon, whose fastball sat at 90-92 mph, allowed a leadoff single to left-center field to Adrian Beltre. Mitch Moreland then ripped a one-out double to right to put runners on second and third. Pinch-hitter Jim Adduci followed with a ground ball to third base. Phillies third baseman Cody Asche had no choice but to throw to first, but Adduci beat the throw as Beltre scored to make it 3-2.
"He was just up in the zone and featuring a lot of fastballs," Sandberg said. "They just happened to be up. Even a 0-2 fastball shoulder high is still a hittable pitch."
Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure visited Papelbon on the mound before he faced Leonys Martin, who hit a ground ball up the middle past second baseman Chase Utley to score Moreland to tie the game. The Phillies had moved their infielders in, a few steps behind the infield grass, making the game-tying run at third base the priority.
Papelbon threw up his arms as the ball scooted through.
"Mac had come to the mound for a visit there and said, 'Ok, let's get a ground ball,'" Papelbon said. "My whole focus was getting a ground ball to get a double play to get us out of the inning."
Sandberg explained the defensive alignment.
"A tough double play guy," Sandberg said of Martin. "It looked like it might have been up the middle anyway. But he's just a tough guy to double up, so he was in. The ball had to be at him to turn [the double play]."
"Obviously, I don't know whether that's called for the bench or called from the middle infielders, but less than two outs I'm thinking ground ball and I'm thinking let's get this double play and go home," Papelbon said. "Obviously, I'm not going to second guess my teammates or my coach. Whatever they decide I've got to run with it and go with it and do my best to do my job. But it's just one of those weird innings, man."
Papelbon walked Donnie Murphy on four pitches to load the bases and Choo on six pitches to force in the winning run.
"The whole inning was kind of just one of those innings," Papelbon said. "You get a cue ball down the third-base line, then you get a double play ball you think is a game-ending double play. It's not. Just one of those innings."
Just one of those games the Phillies cannot afford to lose, one of those games they lost too often last season on their way to an 89-loss campaign. If this season is going to be different, they will have to win games like these.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.