But in the ninth, Shane Victorino laced a double, and the wheels were put in motion -- finally, the sort of outburst so conspicuously lacking in Philadelphia this season, the kind of come-from-behind rally so completely unforeseen.
And after a six-run comeback in the ninth, Howard justified his prediction. He hit a walk-off two-run home run in the 10th, lifting the Phillies past the Reds, 9-7, in front of 45,029, many of whom had left long before.
"I don't know how to explain it," Howard said of his fourth career walk-off homer.
It will undoubtedly be one of the most improbable comebacks of the baseball season, considering how punchless the Phillies' offense was for eight innings prior. Until the ninth, they managed only five hits and two baserunners in scoring position against Leake. Until the ninth, they seemed resigned to a lackluster defeat.
But a double by Victorino sparked them, and while unthinkable at the time, it resulted in a six-run rally that featured 10 batters, five hits and two clutch home runs.
"The last two nights, the wins that we've had are really good, outstanding," Manuel said. "That puts your team in a good frame of mind."
Third baseman Greg Dobbs re-energized the crowd with a three-run home run off the right-field foul pole with one out in the ninth inning. It cut the Reds' lead to 7-5 and knocked Leake out of the game after 101 pitches.
In came Reds closer Francisco Cordero, and after a walk to Ben Francisco, he gave up a game-tying two-run home run to pinch-hitter Cody Ransom, only the eighth home run of the 34-year-old's career.
"With Cordero, he throws hard, so you just try to put the barrel on it and hopefully something good will happen," Ransom said. "It did."
"It's a small ballpark," Cordero said. "You don't bring the tying run to home plate. You just have to get that guy."
The momentum carried into the 10th, when Phillies reliever Ryan Madson shut down the Reds 1-2-3 on two strikeouts and a flyout. And Philadelphia didn't waste much time at the plate again: a leadoff double by Raul Ibanez off All-Star reliever Arthur Rhodes set the stage for Howard's winning hit.
"I was just trying to poke something out to left field and let him run," Howard said. "I was hoping it'd get at least to the wall. I hit it pretty solid."
On a night their former ace, Cliff Lee, changed uniforms again, for a while, the Phillies sure looked like a team longing to have the talented left-hander back. The Reds flexed their muscles against Phils starter Joe Blanton, who was knocked around for 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings. Philadelphia's defense didn't help him in the first -- shortstop Jimmy Rollins and first baseman Howard each made errors.
But Blanton's night was doomed before most of Philadelphia's fans even arrived in their seats: a three-run home run by Jonny Gomes four batters into the game.
"It was a tough game for him," Manuel said. "There was sloppy play, plus it seemed like they were running a lot, and every time they ran, somebody hit the ball and it was in the hole or they hit it hard in the gap or something. It was just one of those nights."
"There were runners on all day," said Blanton, whose ERA rose to 6.41. "I was trying to battle, and that's a very hard lineup to battle against."
Leake motored through Philadelphia's lineup for the first eight innings. The rookie seemed locked in for his first career complete game, having allowed only one run on a sacrifice fly by Jayson Werth in the fourth.
Howard, though, had faith that the team would get to him. He said so to Manuel.
"I just said, 'If we can hold them, we don't have to get it all back at once,'" Howard said. "'We can try and chip away and get runs here and there and get ourselves back in the game.'"
The Phillies certainly waited until the last minute to begin manufacturing offense. Dobbs' home run came on a 3-2 pitch by Leake, his last of the night.
"It's a tough one to swallow, up by six," Leake said. "There should be no reason not to close the game."
For the Phillies, it's one to remember -- a potential springboard toward a second-half revival, if the good feelings can carry over. On Thursday, Philadelphia blew two leads, but managed to win it in extras, on a walk-off home run by catcher Brian Schneider.
These circumstances were different. This game was never the Phils' until the last pitch, until a long night suddenly turned miraculous.
"It was a lot of fun," Ransom said. "Anytime you can be trailing all game like that and then come back and win it in the ninth, it's definitely some momentum."