MIAMI - The National League East race might end up being decided by the two worst teams in the division.
Or, more precisely, the performance of the top two teams in the division against the two worst teams in the division.
The Atlanta Braves have cleaned up on the Miami Marlins and New York Mets.
The Phillies are below .500 against those two clubs.
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The Braves, even after blowing a 7-1 lead and losing to the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday afternoon, maintained their three-game lead in the division because the Phillies could not cash in on a juicy chance to pick up a game in the standings Wednesday night. The Phils watched Atlanta's loss on the clubhouse television. They licked their lips, took the field and came up small in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins and rookie right-hander Sandy Alcantara (see first take).
"Whether Atlanta wins or Atlanta loses, a loss always stings and it's our responsibility to turn the page quickly and start preparing for the next game," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We have to have short memories, be resilient and bounce back immediately."
Time is of the essence. There are just 23 games left and the Phillies play their next three, beginning Friday night, in New York against the Mets. The Phillies have struggled against the Mets, losing eight of 13 meetings. The Phils haven't lit it up against the Marlins, either. They are 9-7 against them.
While the Phillies are a combined 14-15 against the Mets and Marlins, the Braves are 26-9 against those teams.
That could end up being the big difference maker in this division race.
The Marlins dismantled their team in the offseason, sold off talent and entered a rebuilding mode. They were primed for plucking. But the Phils won just three of nine games in Miami this season. They have three more games against the Marlins in Philadelphia.
"I don't know," Rhys Hoskins said. "I think the Mets seem to have our number, too. But when you look at the teams like the Red Sox - we've obviously played them pretty well.
"I don't know what it is. Sometimes you can't really put your finger on it. For whatever reason this year, we haven't been able to put them away when we've had the opportunity."
This would seem to have been a good opportunity for the Phils. They had some momentum after a 9-4 win on Tuesday. They had Nick Pivetta on the mound and he had dominated the Marlins in two previous starts this season. The Marlins had a rookie on the mound making just his second big-league start. Kapler constructed his lineup with an eye toward early offense. He gave Carlos Santana his first start at third base in four years and batted him leadoff. That made room for Justin Bour and his power bat to play first base and bat second.
The Phillies generated just one run but none against Alcantara, whose hard, darting sinker was murder for seven innings. The Phils ran into a costly out on the bases when Roman Quinn got doubled off first base in the eighth. That really hurt because Jose Bautista followed with a two-out pinch-hit double and scored on a hit by Asdrubal Cabrera.
"It was just bad base running on my part," Quinn said.
The Phillies put two runners on base with one out in the ninth, but got nothing when Miami reliever Drew Steckenrider struck out pinch-hitter Pedro Florimon and Quinn to end the game.
The Phillies have scored two or fewer runs in five of their last six games. They have lost four of those six. They are really missing Hoskins' bat. He struck out three times and is 0 for his last 11. He is hitting just .170 in his last 30 games. Maybe Thursday's off day will help him because he needs to turn it around quickly if the Phils are going to have a chance.
"Tough game all around," Hoskins said. "Good teams find a way to flush tough losses and move their focus to the next day."
Pivetta did not help his cause by walking the leadoff man in the second inning and hitting the leadoff man in the fourth. Both of those base runners became runs and the offense could not bail out Pivetta.
"Their starting pitcher did a tremendous job," Pivetta said. "At the end of the day, I was the guy that gave up two runs, so it's on me."
Pivetta watched the Braves lose. He knew the stakes.
"We all knew what was going on," he said. "That's a game I personally need to step up and shut it down against a Marlins club. But that's just how baseball goes sometimes. It's on me. I walked some guys I shouldn't have walked, hit some batters I shouldn't have hit and we lost the game."
And a chance to pull within two games in the division with a trip to Citi Field - where they are 2-4 this season - on deck.