THE Atlanta Braves are lucky they have an eight-game lead over San Francisco in the wild-card race.

Because as far as the National League East is concerned, that race ended as soon as the Phillies got a little breathing room just after the All-Star break.

Officially, the Braves sit only 6 1/2 games behind the Phillies in the division. Mathematically, with more than 30 games remaining, it is still possible for Atlanta to make a run and catch the Phillies down the stretch.

In reality, Atlanta might as well be 6 1/2 behind with six to play.

It's all in the numbers.

For the Braves to win the division, they would not only have to play lights-out baseball, but they also would need the Phillies to go into a monstrous slide.

The former could happen. The latter will not.

I've been around sports long enough to know you should never talk about impossibilities, but it's impossible for the Phillies to not win a fifth straight NL East.

The Phillies can't slump.

The All-Star starting pitching staff they've put together has become the ultimate safeguard against that.

What counts as a bad streak for the Phillies these days is losing two out of three to the Washington Nationals because the back end of the bullpen blew up.

They responded to that minor incontinence by sending Cliff Lee to the mound last night against the New York Mets.

The result was predictable.

Lee handcuffed the Mets to only three hits over seven innings.

The bats banged out 11 hits and gave Lee and reliever David Herndon nine more runs than they would need for a 10-0 victory at Citizens Bank Park.

Not only did the Phillies improve to a major league-best record of 82-44, but for the eighth time in nine opportunities since the All-Star break, they avoided a losing streak of two games.

Yes, two games.

If you want to talk about ridiculous statistics, the Phillies have lost back-to-back games just once since June 5.

That's one two-game losing streak in their last 68 games.

The Phillies' longest losing streak of the season has been four games, which has happened only twice.

If back-to-back losses count, the Phillies have still had only five losing streaks the entire season.

"The winning attitude can take you a long way," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I always say, 'Give me the talent and I'll get the attitude together.' "

The starting pitching has been everything it was advertised to be.

Last night it was Lee dealing, but it could have just as easily been Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels and now maybe even Roy Oswalt again.

The Phillies don't just have one or even two stoppers. They have three; four if Oswalt's last start is an indication that he is finally back to form after his extended stay on the disabled list.

Add in the fact that rookie Vance Worley is 8-1 with a 2.76 ERA, and the Phillies have a starter who can end or prevent a losing streak every game of a five-man rotation.

Since June 5, Halladay has won five games following a loss. Hamels, Lee, Oswalt and Worley have done it two times each.

That doesn't even include the four wins that Michael Stutes has picked up in relief in those situations.

So think about what Atlanta is truly up against.

If the Phillies just play at a .500 clip over their final 36 games, they will finish with 100 victories.

The Braves (77-52) would have to win 23 of their last 33 games to reach 100.

Under normal circumstances, a 6 1/2-game deficit in late August would be difficult to overcome, but not impossible.

Unfortunately for the Braves, they are facing incredibly extraordinary circumstances.

How do you successfully mount a rally against a team that has three starters - Halladay (2.56); Hamels (2.62) and Lee (2.71) ranked in the top 10 in ERA?

If Halladay (15), Lee (14) and Hamels (13) rank in the top 10 in wins; Worley is pitching like a Rookie of the Year candidate, and Oswalt is again ready to be the fourth-ace river card, the Phillies cannot have the protracted slump that would be needed for Atlanta to have any chance of catching them.

But here is the thing that the Braves and the other teams that have aspirations of making the playoffs need to think about.

By playing to a .651 clip through 126 games, the Phillies' rotation has already shown that it can win the regular-season marathon.

This staff, however, was more specifically put together with the intent of winning the sprints that are playoff baseball in October.

If these guys continue to refuse to let the Phillies lose just two games in a row, this team will be difficult to beat in any series - whether it's short or long.