ATLANTA -- The Phillies have entered a dangerous cycle of desperation, payback and momentum swings. Euphoric after a pulsating four-game sweep of New York, Philadelphia stumbled in Florida, losing two of three. The Mets, meanwhile, reeling and sensing a division slipping away, regained footing by pounding the Braves in a three-game sweep at Turner Field. That left the Braves battered and in need of recovery, the Phillies arrived and lost a listless, 5-1, series-opening game to the Braves.
As fast as the Phillies stormed to within two games of the National League East, they returned to five games behind by following up a six-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak. The Mets have won four in a row, while the Phillies followed up a six-game winning streak by losing three straight. "We haven't been able to build off of those wins [against the Mets]," Jamie Moyer said. "It's like scoring a couple of runs [early]. If you score a couple of runs and give it back up, it's not as meaningful. We went out and won four meaningful games and we've lost three of four on the road. To me, it doesn't have much meaning because we've given them some ground back. We've worked too hard to make up that ground and we have to find a way to take back some of that momentum." On the verge of taking two of three from the Marlins on Sunday, Adam Eaton and mates squandered a 5-0 lead. They lamented about it after the game, and likely on the short evening flight to Atlanta. Manager Charlie Manuel theorized that Sunday carried over to the Labor Day defeat. "We did come out flat," Abraham Nunez said. "It's going to happen sometimes. We didn't have real good approaches at the plate. Sometimes things do carry over, but I don't think it was that. It was just one of those days." Philadelphia managed four hits against starter Lance Cormier and four relievers, none after the sixth inning. Chase Utley had three of the hits, and Pat Burrell's single scored the only run in the fourth. Manuel just hopes it's not too late. "We're losing ground with 25 to play," Manuel said. "Sometimes when you go out, you're putting everything you have into it, but things aren't clicking. We didn't hit today, so it looked like we were down or dead." Certainly down, but not dead, despite how it may look. Though the division lead appears to again be slipping away, the Phillies will wake up Tuesday no worse than three games back in the National League Wild Card standings. "Thank God for that," Manuel said with a wry smile. While the box score will show that the Phillies made no errors on Monday, the NL's third-best defensive team didn't play a crisp contest. In a three-run fourth inning, Utley's up-the-line throw on Brian McCann's double allowed Jeff Francoeur to score, when a poor read on the ball appeared to have cost him the chance. On the next play, Aaron Rowand uncorked a throw over Carlos Ruiz's head on a sacrifice fly by Kelly Johnson. That allowed McCann to get to third, but the Phillies were saved when they executed a pinchout to thwart a squeeze play. Moyer had loaded the bases to start that inning by allowing singles to Mark Teixeira, Francoeur and Andruw Jones, and none of those were hit particularly hard, McCann's double was. Moyer lasted 5 2/3 innings on the 89-degree afternoon, surrendering four runs on nine hits. Moyer left after three more softly hit balls in the sixth -- one on bounding ball up the middle that Jimmy Rollins might have secured if he'd timed his leap better -- plated another run. "That's a timing play," Manuel said. "He should've caught that ball. He jumped too soon and was on his way down when he reached for the ball. He was on his way down and the ball was still up." Though unintentional, that may serve as an accurate depiction of the Phillies' up-and-down season. Or perhaps the Phillies just happened to draw the worst time to come to Atlanta. They don't want to focus on the Wild Card yet, but they may have no choice. Either way, the Phillies have to find a way back to postseason contention. "This is the last lap of the season," Nunez said. "You have to nail it down, be aggressive. You have to focus. Not to put any more pressure on anybody, but this is do or die. We definitely have to get some momentum going because we don't want to be packing out bags [after the regular season]."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.