The drip, drip, drip of baseball's annual season-ending water torture actually began to plunk upon the heads of the Phillies and their fans on Tuesday night, to be accurate. The mathematics were still firmly in their favor despite the bad outcomes and it was easy to pass it off as just a pause in the proceedings.

But if you happen to think a certain way - as many longtime, scarred local baseball fans do - that was the first twig snapping in the forest, the one that causes the deer to raise their heads and look around.

After last night, after a long night of enduring another loss by the Phillies and of watching the out-of-town scoreboard for hopeful news, the torture apparently will continue until the last weekend has told its tale.

The Phils, through no fault of their own, might have avoided the necessity for immediate panic among the populace, at least for one more day. The Cubs came from behind to beat the Mets in extra innings in Shea Stadium, and the Phillies kept their 1 1/2-game lead in the NL East as a result. The Phils also have a magic number of three for clinching either the division or the wild-card berth.

Regardless of the extra-inning outcome in Shea Stadium, the Mets knew they could - with a win against Chicago today - enter the final weekend no worse than one game behind a faltering team.

From the Phillies' point of view, they still hold their own destiny, even if it gets more slippery every moment. Ahead, there is only a home weekend series against the Washington Nationals, the worst team in the league. What could possibly go wrong?

There are ghosts in this town who could rattle their chains in answer, and there are the gods of karma who keep records of other things. Maybe a little too much prideful celebrating when the Mets gagged and gave the Phillies the division a season ago. Maybe a bit too much of that-could-never-be-us.

Well, it might not be. The odds are still stacked with the Phillies, but the stacks have dwindled from what they were 48 hours ago.

Last night's 10-4 loss to Atlanta was bad on several fronts. It was the second straight ineffective start for Brett Myers, who had previously been very good since returning from his minor-league reprogramming. He gave up six runs in 41/3 innings against the Braves, but it could have been even worse if Atlanta had been more opportunistic.

And for the second straight night, the Phillies' offense didn't do much aside from a couple of stray solo home runs, their default setting when heading into a slump.

If Myers isn't going to be dependable in the postseason - still operating under the assumption the Phils make the postseason - that eliminates one of the team's few dependable starting pitchers.

Complicating the situation is that if the Phils have not clinched before Sunday's game, they will have to use Cole Hamels rather than save him for the start of the division playoffs.

So this late stumble, even if it turns out to be inconsequential as far as their playoff participation, is not the best prescription for the Phils' hopes of making some noise in the postseason.

At the moment, though, after enduring a tense evening of scoreboard watching, and not-so-tense Phillies watching, fans would settle for just getting there now. This stuff is getting tough to take.

"Well, we've been here before," manager Charlie Manuel said. "It's up to us. If we can't get done, it's our fault. We was in terrific position to win and I believe we can still get it done."

The night turned away from the Phillies at exactly 8:47 p.m., as Scott Eyre came in to relieve for the Phillies and the scoreboard in right field blinked out a change from Shea Stadium. The Mets had relinquished the last of their early lead and Chicago had tied the score, 5-5.

The fans cheered that bit of good news and settled back to see if Eyre could retire pinch-hitter Chipper Jones and hold the Braves to just a three-run lead in the fifth inning. That's the sort of situation in which the Phillies have blasted back to pull out a win a dozen times this season. All it would take is one lousy out.

Eyre didn't get it, though. Jones, batting righthanded, looped a deep home run into the left-field stands to make it a 9-3 game. After that, only what happened in Shea really mattered. What happened in Citizens Bank Park was pretty much settled.

"We're alive and we've got three games to play," Manuel said.

Both things were true, but staying alive might still require a win or two.