Loss to Braves keeps Phillies in neutral

Loss to Braves keeps Phillies in neutral

PHILADELPHIA -- Crates of champagne likely nestle somewhere in the bowels of Citizens Bank Park, ready for clubhouse relocation when needed.

At some point between now and Sunday, the Phillies hope to commence spraying each other with liquid in celebration of a National League East crown or Wild Card title.

Sure, it's fun to discuss possible playoff opponents -- Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers -- ponder the lineup or how the rotation might be rearranged for the best possible matchup. Then there's the simple reality of knowing that a playoff ticket must first be printed.

As close to this reality as the Phillies are, there are no guarantees, and the Braves threw a left hook at them Tuesday, delaying what might be an inevitable champagne celebration with a 3-2 win at Citizens Bank Park.

The Mets defeated the Cubs, shrinking the Phillies' divisional lead to 1 1/2 games and keeping their magic number for clinching the NL East at four. Milwaukee won, too, leaving the guarantee of an embossed playoff invitation frozen at three.

Simply, the Phillies only lost ground.

"Magic numbers don't mean anything if you don't win," starter Cole Hamels said. "That's something that every one of us understands. You can't believe what you look like on paper. You can't look ahead and forget about the other games in between. If you do that, you can go 1-9 and we'd be looking at a completely different story."

The Phillies have had plenty of magic in September, sprinting from four and 3 1/2 games back in the Wild Card and division races, respectively, with a 10-1 run that gave them the right to control their own destiny.

They gave some of the momentum back on a day when the Braves turned three runs and a solid pitching performance from Mike Hampton into a slim win against Hamels, the team's 14-game winner.

Allowing single runs in the first, third and sixth innings, Hamels threw 116 pitches. The third-inning run came on his throwing error, when Kelly Johnson took off for third. Pedro Feliz retreated to third to cover, but Hamels threw the ball wide to Feliz's left, and into left field.

"That's why I'm not a professional quarterback," Hamels said. "I don't have to hit guys on the run. I just need to be better. I need to set my feet and make a good throw. I wasn't able to do that."

The third run scored on a long ball from Casey Kotchman, the third homer off Hamels by the Braves first baseman.

Philadelphia threatened to tie the game in the sixth. Ryan Howard tripled and scored on Pat Burrell's double. With no outs, manager Charlie Manuel abandoned the sacrifice after two pitches to Shane Victorino. He grounded to short and rookie Brett Lillibridge caught Burrell in a rundown.

He was eventually tagged out after what Manuel called "a baserunning mistake." Victorino was then caught stealing, and the inning ended on a groundout by Pedro Feliz.

"We lost the game," Howard said. "I don't think there's a need to go into a frenzy about it. It happens. The good thing is, we get to come back tomorrow and try to right the ship."

A bigger loss may have happened if this loss forces the Phillies to pitch Hamels on the final day of the season, a necessity should that game matter. The Phils would like nothing more than to give to ball to another pitcher and rest Hamels for the Division Series.

"Maybe so," Manuel said in regard to pitching Hamels on the final day.

Maybe so. Maybe so. The Phillies had many things go their way this season, and especially during their crisp run this month. There were no panic buttons pressed Tuesday, either, not with four games to play and a lead.

If they hold up, the champagne may still get poured.

"It happens. I know the teams that go to the playoffs and win, they have to have the breaks go their way," Hamels said. "I don't think you can win 90-100 baseball games on pure skill. There has to be luck here and there, and we didn't have it today."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.