Watch Your Back, Phillies, 3rd Place in the NL East Could Be Just a Day Away


ATLANTA - The Phillies have been in first or second place in the National League East every day this season.

That could change as soon as Thursday.

Wednesday night's dispiriting 9-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves dropped the Phillies to 45-41. They entered the month of June leading the division by three games and now sit in second place, 5½ games behind the Braves, as the Fourth of July arrives.

But watch your back, Phillies. The Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins on Wednesday to improve to 25-10 in their last 35 games. The Nats are 44-41, just a half-game behind the Phillies. They play the Marlins in a holiday game Thursday morning. A Washington win and a Phillies loss in Atlanta would drop the Phils into third place in the division - a troubling development given where this team was a month ago.

"I think we all knew that was going to happen," Bryce Harper said. "I think as a division at the beginning of the year, we knew it was going to be a juggernaut. We've played some of our worst baseball we can absolutely play in the month of June. To be able to still be in second, only five games, I think, behind the Braves - I don't think they're going to slow down at all and I don't think the Nats are going to slow down. We've just got to keep playing Phillies baseball, keep playing well, keep doing our thing. I'm not really worried about where teams are and whether they're in front of us or behind us. It's going to be a juggernaut of a division and I think it's going to be like that for a long time so we've just got to play good baseball and hopefully win some games."

The Phils aren't going to win a lot of games scoring two runs.

That's how many they've scored each of the last two nights in Atlanta.

Tuesday night, the two-spot was good enough for a win because Aaron Nola was a beast.

But it wasn't enough Wednesday night with Nick Pivetta giving up a pair of three-run home runs in 5⅔ innings and Juan Nicasio getting lit up for three extra-base hits and three runs in one-third of an inning of relief.

"I thought Nick's fastball was effective," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I thought he made two costly mistakes. The first one to (Josh) Donaldson, a curveball. The second one, a slider to (Austin) Riley. Both of those were big hits that obviously did all of the damage."

Nicasio revealed after the game that he was pitching with a sore groin. He could end up on the injured list Thursday.

Kapler was asked if he would like to have known that Nicasio was hurting before he called him into the game.

"I'm not going to speculate or second-guess our pitchers," he said. "Our pitchers are tough. They fight really hard. They prepare themselves to pitch."

Phillies relievers have a 6.70 ERA since June 1.

The starting staff has two glaring concerns in Pivetta (he's allowed 20 runs in his last four starts) and Vince Velasquez, who one week is the fifth starter, one week is not and the next week is.

Clearly, the Phils need to add some quality pitching before the July 31 trade deadline if they are going to stay in this thing.

They could also use a bat. They've played 18 innings the last two nights in Atlanta and scored runs in just two of them.

The runs Wednesday night came in the sixth inning when Harper homered with two outs. Rhys Hoskins followed with a double and scored on a single by J.T. Realmuto, who was thrown out quite easily trying to stretch the hit into a double.

Harper's homer gave him a unique milestone. It was his 200th career homer and 1,000th career hit. Never before had a player in major league history reached a milestone hit and homer with one swing.

Harper was able to get the ball as a souvenir because a fan threw it back on the field. What a doofus. Didn't even negotiate an autographed ball or maybe a few of those $330 million that brought Harper to Philadelphia.

Despite the loss, Harper was tickled by his achievement.

"No, I'll enjoy it," he said. "Of course, they beat us and that's part of the game. I'm excited about it. It's a pretty cool moment. Of course, it's not where I want to end up, not where I want to be. I've got a lot of goals and dreams that I want to accomplish and this is just part of it."

The Phils can still pick up a game on the Braves with a win Thursday. They can also stay out of third place with a win. But it won't be easy. They are facing Mike Soroka, who is 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA and headed for the All-Star Game. Zach Eflin will pitch for the Phillies.

"We're 1-1 in the series," Harper said. "We were able to get that W yesterday and we got beat today by a good Braves team. Go out there and hopefully pitch well tomorrow, score some runs, get to New York."

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