MILWAUKEE - Looks like this is going to be a bit of a slog after all. Instead of closing out the regular season with a leisurely victory lap, the Phillies are apparently going to drag toward their third straight division championship like a soldier on his stomach, inching forward by his elbows to avoid enemy fire.

There was quiet optimism when they arrived at Miller Park four games earlier that they could be celebrating on the same field and in the same clubhouse where they sprayed champagne to mark their Division Series win over the Brewers last October. Except that they only won twice and the Braves didn't lose at all and the magic number is at three going into the beginning of the season-ending homestand that opens tonight.

They would have liked to have ended the suspense in a ballpark where the Sausage Race still wows the crowd every time, but it could have been wurst.

There was nothing artistic about their 6-5 win over the Brewers yesterday. They had to white-knuckle their way through the final innings largely because the lineup went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 14 runners on base, nine of them on second or third.

Unfocused, undisciplined at-bats are often a telltale sign of physical and mental fatigue. And Charlie Manuel has been around long enough to get that. "We are tired," the manager said.

At the same time, he's old-school enough to believe that you don't sit your regulars until after the clincher.

"If we can do something, we can give them a couple days. We'll definitely do that," he said. "Once we get something done I plan on resting guys like Chase [Utley], [Jimmy] Rollins, [Shane] Victorino and guys like that."

It was interesting, though, that the Phillies took a full batting practice yesterday morning even though they were playing a day game after a night game. Manuel defended that decision, while adding that he could look for ways to give players a breather without giving them a full game off.

"Stuff like that we can do," he said. "But you know something? Hitting on the field to me is better than hitting in the cage. To me, you get on the field and you get your adrenaline pumping. It gets your blood going and everything."

Rollins conceded that he's bone weary and would love to take a break . . . but not until after the National League East title has been secured.

"Definitely," he nodded when asked if he thought the Phillies were a tired team. "A day of rest would be nice. Of course, we could have been getting plenty of days of rest. But things don't always go the way we want.

"What happens is that at times you have lapses in concentration. You think you have the pitcher right where you wanted him and then, wham, you miss that one pitch."

In a city where the ghosts of 1964 still rattle their chains, it's considered politically incorrect to take anything for granted. At the same time, they have a five-game lead over the Braves with seven to play. They're facing an Astros team that is running out unproven youngsters like Yorman Bazardo, Wilton Lopez and Felipe Paulino. The Phils should wrap it up and, if they don't, will have no one to blame but themselves.

And when they do, an interesting subplot will be to watch how they celebrate. There are sure to be those who will argue that defending world champions should play it low-key because they're still three steps away from getting back to where they were the previous year.

The Phillies aren't going to do that. There will be champagne sprayed, although the plan is for the level of celebration to escalate if they continue to play deeper into the championship rounds. And there are at least two good reasons why they should.

One is that not every player who is on the roster now was with the team last year. Some have never had the experience.

The other is that, in some ways, just making it to the postseason is the hardest part. To minimize that accomplishment doesn't make sense.

"You don't want to take [getting to the playoffs] for granted," said the Red Sox' Terry Francona, the only manager since 2000 to take a defending world champion to the postseason the following year. "Because it's tough. You want to get excited, but you also don't want to lose sight of your goal.

"We always like to say that every year is different. So why shouldn't you celebrate?"

The Phillies hoped to get all that out of the way in Milwaukee. It didn't work out that way. Now they'll head back to Citizens Bank Park to wrap things up.

After the game yesterday, along with the suitcases and equipment bags and all the other paraphernalia that a big-league team takes when it goes on the road, they packed 10 unopened cases of Domaine Ste. Michelle champagne to to take home with them.

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