WASHINGTON - Jim Leyland has a line he likes to use after a loss to a team that, on paper, doesn't stack up.

"Hey, the other side gives scholarships, too," the Tigers manager will harrumph.

Fair enough. This is the big leagues and even the clubs at the bottom of the standings have big-league players.

At the same time, one of the oldest and most effective methods of staying in the pennant race all season is to play the better teams to a draw and then beat the whey out of the rest of the schedule. It may not be kind to take advantage of clubs that are beset by injuries, low payrolls or various forms of dysfunction or misfortune, but it's a pretty reliable way to gain admittance to the postseason.

"That's what it takes to win," Charlie Manuel said firmly after the Phillies eked out a 1-0 win against last-place Washington last night at Nationals Park.

The Phillies manager doesn't have to look far for corroborating evidence. It was a formula that his players followed faithfully last year while making it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Against teams with winning records, they treaded water, going 43-42 (.506).

They got fat against teams with losing marks, however, going 46-31 (.597). That was just enough to allow them to edge the free-falling Mets at the wire.

And no team contributed more generously to this effort than the Nationals, who put 12 Ws in Philadelphia's column, including a pair on the decisive final weekend.

This year, however, the Phils haven't been sticking to the script.

They are once again holding their own against the better teams, going 10-9 against clubs that have won more than they've lost. But against teams that are under .500, they're just 15-13.

The Phillies are 2-3 against Washington this season going into tonight's series finale. The Nats have been as pesky as, well, gnats.

Don't misunderstand. A win is a win. And after losing three straight to teams with losing records - they dropped the last two games at home to Toronto before taking their chartered Amtrak train down to Union Station - they're happy to have it.

Nobody's suggesting they didn't deserve to come out on top, either. Not after Cole Hamels pitched another seven shutout innings and Greg Dobbs shrugged off a cranky back to deliver the game-winning pinch-hit RBI off of dominant Nationals closer Jon Rauch.

The other side gives scholarships, too . . .

And yet, there was a nagging feeling that this game at least shouldn't have been quite as much of a struggle.

At the outset, the omens seemed to be well-aligned in the Phillies' favor. They had been shut out Monday night. Three times previously this season they had been held to one or fewer runs. They were averaging 8.3 runs in the game that followed. That followed a pattern set last year when they went 9-2 and averaged 6.4 runs after being blanked or held to a single run.

They were facing a pitcher, Jason Bergmann, who had a 7.45 earned run average that got him sent to Triple A Columbus. He was making his second start since being recalled.

The Phillies have had well-publicized problems against lefthanders this year but that couldn't be an issue last night. Washington manager Manny Acta doesn't have a single lefty in his bullpen.

And Hamels was starting for the Phillies. He's the closest thing Manuel has had to money in the bank this season, coming off his first career shutout and facing a team that ranks at or near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories.

They also had won five straight after losses started by Brett Myers.

Make that six. But the emotion in the clubhouse afterward was more relief than euphoria.

Manuel is well aware that his team hasn't been taking advantage of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses lagging off the pace. But he doesn't think it's a matter of a team losing its edge or playing down to the level of the competition.

"If you noticed, when Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino were out [with injuries] we still played pretty good because we had a couple guys who were hot," he said, referring to Chase Utley and Pat Burrell.

"But right now we don't have anybody really hitting the ball consistently. We need for a couple guys to get hot."

For example, there was Sunday's loss to Toronto, when the Phils went 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position. "We got 13 hits but we left all those guys [11] on base," he pointed out. "So you can't say we hit good."

The Phillies were 4-36 (.111) with runners in scoring position over their last four games before Dobbs blooped a single over the drawn-in infield to score Eric Bruntlett from third last night.

Manuel leaned back in his chair. He agreed that the Phillies have to do better against teams that are struggling. And there's one other thing that concerns him.

"And you have to beat people in your own division, too, since you play them so many times," he said.

Even with last night's win, the Phillies are just 6-8 against the National League East so far this season. *

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