The ball was hit to the deepest part of Citizens Bank Park, but it just kept going and going. Ryan Howard, standing near second base, watched Washington centerfielder Jason Maxwell drift back into the corner, where a sign on the green wall marks 409 feet from home plate.

"If you would have asked me where I thought it was going when I hit it," Jayson Werth said on Sunday, "it was probably about right there. Just over the fence."

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Werth touched first base and saw the ball bounce beyond the railing. Having authored an incredible Phillies comeback win, Werth raised his right fist to the sky.

Phillies 7, Nationals 6. And now, here come the Braves.

"We're definitely in a good position," Shane Victorino said.

Are they ever. Atlanta had already won as the Phillies came to bat in the ninth, trailing by three runs. Save a rally, the Phillies' lead in the National League East would be two games when the Braves arrived Monday. Instead, it remains three and the Phillies are assured at least a tie of first when the critical series ends Wednesday. And a tie will only happen if Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt each lose.

On Sunday, Placido Polanco singled to begin the ninth against Washington's rookie closer, Drew Storen. Chase Utley doubled down the left-field line. Howard scored both runners with a single to right-center. Then came Werth.

"It was a super at-bat," Charlie Manuel said.

With a 3-1 count, Werth chased ball four, a 94-m.p.h. fastball off the corner. Storen followed with a slider, which Werth said was the key pitch. He fought it off into foul territory. The seventh pitch was a fastball, which took Werth off-guard. He fouled it off; he thought Storen would come back with another slider.

The eighth pitch, a 94-m.p.h. fastball, was deposited into the stands, just to the left of the 409 sign.

"He didn't miss the fastball," Howard said.

Werth tossed his helmet in the air and jumped on home plate as his teammates mobbed him. Inside the clubhouse, an ejected Victorino and some of the already-used pitchers watched. But the clubhouse TVs had a slight delay and they heard everyone scream before the ball landed on the TV coverage. Victorino stayed where he was.

"I had to see it for myself," Victorino said.

For eight innings, the Phillies had slogged through this Sunday matinee, the final prelude to what will feel like postseason baseball in South Philadelphia. The Phils plan to hand out white rally towels Monday, just as they do in the playoffs. The Phillies and Braves have scoreboard-watched for more than two months since they last met.

Of course, Sunday felt more like an informal dress rehearsal. By the time Polanco singled to left to start the ninth, there were quite a few empty seats.

"It seemed like some people left there," Werth said. "I don't know why you're leaving."

Manuel always talks about playing "to the moment." So many of his Phillies teams have done that before, performing at their best in the highest occasions. Sunday was a microcosm of the season.

The Phillies slumped through May and June and July. But, they cautioned, there was plenty of time left. On July 21, the Phils were seven games back of the Braves. Since then, they are 41-15. In September, they are 15-3 and have won seven straight.

Atlanta has won three straight after sweeping the Mets in New York. The general feeling in the Phillies clubhouse: a two-game lead is very different from a three-game one.

"That's huge," Howard said. "I'm sure those guys were probably on their way down here thinking they were going to be back two games and amped up."

Until the ninth Sunday, missed opportunities and poor pitching put the Phillies behind. Yet that is where they have succeeded so many times in 2010.

"We hold our own destiny," Werth said. "Here we are, getting into late September again. We're right where we want to be. We're clicking on all cylinders. We'll be a force to be reckoned with."

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb
at 215-854-2928
Follow on Twitter @magelb.