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Phillies fall out of first place with loss to Braves

ATLANTA - Perhaps the Phillies should cancel their upcoming Foam Finger giveaway and instead stage a Dollar Valium Night. Or, at the very least, reshape the foam finger into a thumb pointing downward.

ATLANTA - Perhaps the Phillies should cancel their upcoming Foam Finger giveaway and instead stage a Dollar Valium Night.

Or, at the very least, reshape the foam finger into a thumb pointing downward.

Because right now, Charlie Manuel could use either one.

"Just tryin' to find a way to get some runs," the bewildered Phillies manager said after witnessing a 9-3 loss to the Braves, a game in which he was ejected, perhaps mercifully, by home plate umpire Larry Vanover in the top of the third inning.

The good news is that the Phillies weren't shut out yesterday afternoon.

They slipped out of first place for the first time since they entered play on May 2, and they mustered just six hits, but they scored a few runs.

The bad news, of course, is that avoiding a shutout now counts as good news, given the unprecedented run of offensive misery that continued at Turner Field against a resurgent Braves team that is now in sole possession of first place in the National League East.

For the ninth straight game, the Phillies failed to score more than three runs, their longest stretch since 1997, and the longest stretch in the majors this season. In those nine games, they have failed to score five times.

For the seventh straight game, they did not hit a home run, their longest stretch since going homerless in seven games in 1997.

And for the 13th consecutive game they did not reach double digits in hits, their longest drought since going 13 games in 1989 and 14 games in 1983.

Laying out the problem is far easier than providing insight for its origins. The answers after yesterday's loss were the same as the ones that followed the other eight that have occurred in this 13-game span, during which the Phillies have scored just 22 runs and hit .195 while watching their five-game division lead turn into a half-game deficit.

There is nothing to indicate that the Phillies have suddenly transformed from one of the highest-scoring offenses in Major League Baseball to its lowest.

The mantra remains the same: Give us time. We'll swing our way out of it.

But the struggles have taken an obvious toll, both on the psyche of the team and on its standing in the National League.

After the loss, which dropped them to 28-22, players either dressed silently at their lockers or sat around the clubhouse staring straight ahead in frustration. While the Phillies still firmly believe they are a good offensive team enduring one of baseball's many humbling stretches, their struggles have left them with what amounts to a lost month, any thoughts of a summerlong joy ride to the postseason replaced by the realization that they are now in second place.

It was only May 17 when they opened up a seven-game homestand with a 12-2 win over the Pirates that put them 11 games over .500 and gave them a five-game lead in the division. At the same time, the Braves were 6 1/2 games behind.

After finishing April 1 1/2 games out of first place, the Phillies started May by winning 12 of their next 15 games. Now, they are nearly back where they started, this time staring up at a Braves team that has won 11 of its last 13 and, judging by yesterday's outburst, starting to find its offensive groove.

Atlanta scored six runs in the first three innings off righthander Joe Blanton, two of them coming on a home run by Chipper Jones in the bottom of the first. The Phillies had appeared poised to strike in the top half of the inning, but with runners on first and third and one out, Ryan Howard grounded into a doubleplay.

"When you're behind six runs, and you've got to score six to tie and seven to catch up, that's hard," said Manuel, who again emphasized that it is only a matter of time before his team resumes hitting. "But we've been having trouble scoring a run . . . That's a lot of runs for us evidently to come back from right now.''

Howard, who went 0-for-4, has not hit a home run in his last nine games, and has just four singles and five walks in his last 36 plate appearances.

"It's pretty frustrating lately," said Blanton, who was charged with four earned runs in six innings while falling to 1-4. "It seems that anything that can go wrong does, on both sides of the line, at the plate and on the field. We know we're a good team, we know what we're capable of. It's just a matter of showing up every day at the field and wiping out the day before and keep grinding away, keep playing hard, and knowing things will change."

The Phillies avoided being shut out for the sixth time in their last nine games, but they did so only after trailing 6-0 with two outs in the seventh inning. That is when leftfielder Raul Ibanez drove a double off the wall in left to start a two-out rally that eventually cut the deficit in half. The liner was one of only three hits, and the only one for extra bases, that the Phillies managed off Braves righthander Tommy Hanson, who threw 109 pitches and left the game after his at-bat against Ibanez.

Atlanta righthander Peter Moylan then surrendered three straight RBI doubles - one to Carlos Ruiz, one to Wilson Valdez and one to pinch-hitter Ben Francisco - before pinch-hitter Juan Castro grounded out to end the frame.

By that point, Manuel was in the clubhouse, having been ejected after Vanover changed his mind on a pitch that he initially ruled to have hit Dobbs. Replays strongly suggested that the ball did not hit Dobbs, but Manuel said he was frustrated that Vanover changed his mind after Braves manager Bobby Cox argued.

"After he changed it, it was kind of time for me to go," Manuel said.

Then again, maybe he was just frustrated in general.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at