THEY'RE ALMOST the Team to Beat.
With a 6-4 win over the eliminated Braves and ace John Smoltz last night the Phillies won for the 11th time in 14 games, their best run of the season.
Meanwhile, some 120 miles north, the Mets audibly imploded, losing for the 10th time in 14 games, 3-0 to the Cardinals. Finally, excruciatingly, they have blown the seven-game lead they held on Sept. 12.
The clubs now are tied atop the National League East with three home games to play, the Phillies' first time in first place since April 6, 2005. Both trail wild-card leader San Diego by a game.
In January, Jimmy Rollins sparked outrage in New York when he declared the Phillies the division's team to beat, not the defending champion Mets.
Is he right?
Check back on Sunday night.
"We haven't done anything. We're at zero. No one wins at zero. We still have work to do," Rollins said. "We have three games left. We'll see."
The Mets now face the Marlins; the Phillies, the Nationals. Both teams have 10-5 series leads over the visitors.
But one team is playing terribly.
The Phillies have been a big part of that.
They have beaten the Mets eight straight times. The first win in that streak came on July 1, when 22-year-old rookie Double A call-up Kyle Kendrick lasted 6 2/3 innings, gave up three runs and averted a four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. He moved to 3-0 in his fourth major league start.
Last night, Kendrick, now 23 and the staff's No. 2 starter, was nearly as good: six innings, three runs. He moved to 10-4.
"It was big," Rollins said of Kendrick's performance July 1.
The whole team was big, every time they faced the Mets. It was with a focused purpose.
"We made up ground every time we played them, no matter what the lead was. When we played them, we handled our business, head up," Rollins said. "That's what you want. That way, you can control your destiny against them."
The Phillies can control their destiny to a degree, now, with a sweep that would force at least a playoff with the Mets. They tagged Smoltz (14-8) for six runs, five earned, in four innings, possibly the worst start of the season for the pitcher who entered with the league's second-best earned run average.
Four of the runs came in the first inning.
Smoltz' throwing error on Shane Victorino's bunt allowed Rollins to score from first base. Victorino then scored on Mark Teixeira's fielding error. Ryan Howard followed with his 44th homer of the season, which gave Kendrick a 4-0 cushion.
That grew to 6-0 when Pat Burrell finally hurt Smoltz, with a CBP special homer, his 30th of the season but his first off Smoltz, who owned him. Entering the at-bat, Burrell was 2-for-26 with 14 strikeouts, including one in the first inning.
"I told Chuck before the game, 'I'm bound to do something,' " Burrell said. "[Smoltz] made a mistake. I finally hit one."
Burrell hit it to the laughable left-centerfield power alley that Smoltz has long derided.
"Burrell's ball was not a home run, but that's just what this ballpark does for you," Smoltz said. "If you can hit a fly ball in this park, then you might have yourself a home run. It's a strange game."
Chipper Jones hit a similar shot in the sixth off Kendrick, a two-run blast that was the Braves' first real damage. Teixiera followed with his third in as many games. Kendrick finished the inning and was done.
Flash Gordon squirmed out of trouble in the seventh, helped by a doubleplay. J.C. Romero got another doubleplay in the eighth, with Teixeira at bat, after Chase Utley's error let Chipper Jones reach first.
Brett Myers' first pitch in the ninth got rocked for a homer by Jeff Francoeur, but he got a one-out snare from third baseman Abraham Nuñez, a defensive specialist. Myers abused Kelly Johnson with curveballs until Johnson struck out, giving Myers a 21st save and a body slam at Burrell's hands.
"I got tackled - I thought I just won the seventh game of the World Series, but it was great," Myers said. "It was a good feeling. It was awesome."
The win gave the Phillies 87, their second-highest total since they last made the playoffs, in 1993. Charlie Manuel took them to 88 in 2005, his first season as manager.
The Braves won the division that year, the last of 14 straight division titles. The Mets won last year and seemed poised to do the same, and would be doing it had they gone 4-4 instead of 0-8 in their last meetings with the Phillies.
Rollins, showcasing MVP skills, carried them through those eight games. His two-run homer in the third inning July 1 put the Phils ahead for good in that game. In the eight games, Rollins hit .368 with three homers, eight RBI and six stolen bases.
But even he stopped thinking about the division title and focused on the wild-card race when the Phillies visited the Mets from Sept. 14-16, when the Mets held a 6 1/2-game lead.
"Right before we went to play the Mets the last time – that was to stay in the wild-card race," Rollins said. "As it's worked out, we're here."
Here, as in, tied for first place – and nearly the team to beat.
That declaration has brought Rollins plenty of heat, and, for a while, it cast a rebuilt team as underachievers.
"Like I said from the beginning: I don't care what everybody else thinks. We're here. Three games to go. A good position. Gonna be fun." *