by Idris Garcia
ATLANTA (UTC/The Loop) — The televisions in the Atlanta clubhouse had all been switched off. The Braves didn’t even bother hanging around to watch the team that’s chasing them in the wild-card race.
All they cared about was another wrenching loss in their September swoon.
Atlanta squandered an early two-run lead against Cliff Lee as the playoff-bound Philadelphia Phillies rallied for their 100th win of the season, 4-2 over the Braves on Monday night. But the wild-card lead remained at one game when the St. Louis Cardinals lost at last-place Houston 5-4 on a squeeze bunt in the 10th inning.
“Everybody is upset that we lost the game, but we’ve still got another game tomorrow,” Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said, trying to stay upbeat even with his team facing an epic collapse.
The Braves, still clinging to a once-comfortable lead in the wild-card race thanks to the Astros, lost their third straight and seventh in the last 10. Their September record dropped to 9-16, nearly wiping out a margin that had been 8½ games just three weeks ago. There are two games left in the regular season.
The St. Louis-Houston contest was tied when most of the Braves cleared out of the clubhouse, not even checking a score on their phones.
“This is a tough loss for me,” said rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, who came up three times with a runner at second and failed to come through. “The last thing I want to do is watch another ballgame.”
Ditto for the senior member of the team, 39-year-old Chipper Jones.
Barely able to run on an ailing right knee, Jones homered in the first to get the Braves started quickly, but hit into an inning-ending double play in the eighth with the potential tying runs aboard.
He wasn’t paying attention to the Cardinals.
“I don’t really care about that,” Jones said. “I’ll find out what they did later on tonight or tomorrow. Right now, I’m just trying to flush this one and start focusing on Roy Oswalt,” who’ll start Tuesday for the Phillies.
Lee (17-8) pitched six strong innings, Jimmy Rollins homered and Raul Ibanez drove in two runs, leading the NL East champions past their division rivals to start the final series of the regular season.
They reached 100 wins for the third time in franchise history.
“A hundred looks better than 98,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “If I had my way, we’d win more than that. That’s — what would you say? — a benchmark.”
The Phillies sure didn’t go easy on the Braves, even though their trip to the playoffs was in the bag weeks ago.
“We went out there and played like we always do,” Manuel said. “I look at our guys, I think we’re ready to win right now.”
The Braves tried to rally at the end, but they couldn’t string together any hits — a familiar theme for a team that has scored only three runs in the last three games. Brad Lidge gave up a walk and a single in the eighth, but Jones grounded one sharply to second baseman Chase Utley, who started the double play that sent many in the announced crowd of 42,597 heading for the exits.
In the ninth, Dan Uggla lined one to left off Ryan Madson that got under the glove of a diving Ibanez. Uggla pulled up at second with a double and that’s where he stayed. Freeman and Brian McCann struck out swinging before pinch-hitter Jason Heyward grounded out to first to end it. Madson earned his 32nd save.
The Braves tried to lighten the mood before the game. Backup catcher David Ross entertained his teammates with his impression of the crusty manager in the movie “Major League.”
Early on, it seemed to work. Atlanta jumped ahead against Lee, making his final tuneup before the playoffs. Jones drove his 18th homer into the left-field seats, then Matt Diaz and Alex Gonzalez had consecutive doubles in the second.
“Everybody was swinging free and easy. We were ready to play,” Jones said. “After the first two innings, I would’ve given us a 99.9 percent chance to win the game.”
The Braves had not led a game in three days, but they didn’t fare any better playing out front.
“I attribute it more to good pitching than a lack of hitting,” Jones said. “I’ll take that showing. We battled for 27 outs and all nine innings.”
In the fourth, Philadelphia broke through against 21-year-old rookie Randall Delgado, making just his seventh big league start. Hunter Pence got it started with a one-out single. Ryan Howard lined another hit to right-center and Shane Victorino walked to loaded the bases. Delgado made a bid to escape the jam, retiring Ibanez on a foul popup, but Placido Polanco followed with a sharp single up the middle to bring home Pence.
The slow-running Howard had to stop at third, and Carlos Ruiz flied out to center with the Braves still leading 2-1. It didn’t last long. Rollins tied it in the fifth, lining his 15th homer over the fence in right field.
Delgado was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom half, having surrendered five hits. The Phillies pulled ahead against the Atlanta bullpen.
With one out in the sixth, Victorino yanked one down the right-field line off Cristhian Martinez (1-3) and sped all the way to third for a triple, just beating the relay throw. Eric O’Flaherty took over for Martinez, and the Braves pulled in the infield looking to cut off the go-ahead run. But Ibanez grounded one sharply past diving first baseman Freeman, and Victorino trotted home to make it 3-2.
Ibanez added another run-scoring hit in the eighth off Jonny Venters.
Lee looked shaky in the beginning, giving up four extra-base hits to the first eight Atlanta hitters. But he settled down after that, retiring the next 12 in a row.
Jones ended Lee’s dominance with one out in the sixth, lining one to the gap in left-center that hopped over the wall for a ground-rule double. But, showing the desperation of a struggling team, Uggla struck out on three pitches — the last one hopping in front of the plate — and Freeman hit a soft liner to shortstop Rollins.
After saying Lee would probably throw about 70 pitches in his final regular-season start, Manuel allowed the left-hander to stay in for 92. He gave up five hits and struck out six.
NOTES: The Braves activated LHP George Sherrill from the 15-day DL. He had been out since Aug. 27 with elbow inflammation. … Atlanta confirmed RHP Peter Moylan will need surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum. But Moylan tweeted that it is more of a cleanup than a complete repair, cutting his rehab time to six months. … Struggling Derek Lowe (9-16) will start for the Braves against Oswalt (8-10). Lowe is 1-3 with a 4.13 ERA in four starts against the Phillies this season. Oswalt is 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA vs. the Braves this season, but only 1-3 with a 5.15 ERA in 10 career starts.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.