Jimmy Rollins made his infamous proclamation in January that the Phillies would be the team to beat in the National League East. He never backed off, despite a wretched start to their season, injuries to numerous key contributors, and one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball.

He never wavered.

Not once.

"It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks," Rollins said last night after the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 6-4, at Citizens Bank Park to move into a first-place tie with the New York Mets in the National League East with three games to play. "It only mattered what the guys in here think, and how we play. We're here. We're right there with three games to go."

It's incredible to think that seven weeks of spring training and 159 games ultimately come down to one weekend.

"It is crazy," Rollins said. "It is. It definitely is. You'd like for things to be easier. Who wouldn't like for things to be easier? But sports wouldn't be as fun if it was that way."

"It's got to be like that, right?" Chase Utley said. "That's what makes it exciting. That's what you train in the off-season for. You come to spring training with your goal to be in this situation at the end of the year."

No team in baseball history has blown a seven-game lead with 17 to play.

The Mets, who lost, 3-0, last night to the St. Louis Cardinals, could be the first.

Remember 1964?

The Phillies famously blew a 61/2-game lead with 12 games left to lose the pennant. If the Phils win the East this year, maybe 40 years from now fans will be talking about 2007 the way fans talk about 1964 today.

But this time, they won't need a beer and a shot as a chaser.

Things certainly seem to be going the Phillies' way.

They were last night. Rollins hit a leadoff single up the middle in the first inning. Shane Victorino then dropped a bunt down the third-base line. It rolled to no-man's land, but Braves pitcher John Smoltz picked up the ball and tried to make an off-balance throw to first base.

He misfired. The ball rolled up the first-base line. Rollins scored easily, and Victorino cruised into third on the error.

Utley then hit a smash to first baseman Mark Teixeira, who booted the ball into right-center field. Victorino scored, and Utley reached base safely. Five pitches later, Ryan Howard knocked a 2-2 pitch from Smoltz (14-8) into the first few rows over the right-field wall for a two-run home run to make it 4-0.

Two hits.

Two errors.

Four runs.

They would take it.

Pat Burrell hit a two-run homer to left in the third to make it 6-0. Smoltz, who despises the Bank for its cozy dimensions, lasted just four innings. He allowed seven hits, six runs and no walks in the loss, which eliminated the Braves from postseason contention.

Kyle Kendrick (10-4) gave up six hits and three runs in six innings to earn the win. Tom Gordon pitched a scoreless seventh, and J.C. Romero threw a scoreless eighth. Brett Myers picked up his 21st save in the ninth, despite a little scare when he allowed a leadoff homer to Jeff Francoeur.

But the Phillies are right where they want to be.

They control their fate.

If they win their next three games, they will ensure at least a one-game playoff on Monday.

"I think we're all excited," Myers said.

So are the fans. They roared as soon as they learned the Cardinals had taken the lead over the Mets in the first. They roared even louder when the Phillies showed the final moments of the Mets' loss on their scoreboard in left field. Fans then chucked their white rally towels onto the field after Myers struck out Kelly Johnson to end the game.

"Hopefully, they're giving out more rally towels tomorrow," Myers joked. "We need more of those."

It's almost hard to remember that the Phillies opened the season 4-11 for the worst record in baseball. But after a 2-1 loss in 10 innings to Cincinnati on April 20, manager Charlie Manuel called a team meeting April 21 in the visitors' clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.

The Phillies are 83-61 since - the best record in the National League. But even with the Phils' improved play, the Mets still held a seven-game lead on Sept. 12.

Division title?

No way.

Not a chance.

Even the Phillies, who haven't been to the playoffs since 1993, acknowledged that they had pushed NL East aspirations from their minds and were focused on the wild card. But the Phils, who are one game behind in the wild-card race, are 11-3 since then for the best record in baseball. The Mets? They are 4-10 since for the second-worst record in baseball.

Division title? It's the Phils' if they want it.

Just three more to go.

"We haven't done anything," Howard cautioned. "This is where it all begins - right here. It's like the start of the season all over again."

See video clips of the game on CineSport at http://go.philly.com/sports.


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.
Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/zozone.