At 4:07 p.m. Sunday, Ryan Howard whiffed at a 97 m.p.h. Craig Kimbrel fastball and Citizens Bank Park emptied without fanfare. Reality has not escaped most; after a lackluster 2-1 loss to Atlanta, the Phillies stand five games back of a postseason spot with nine to play.

The Phillies, deluded by the memories of their past greatness, still cling to hope. So life in limbo continues until the bitter end.

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"The noose is getting tight," Charlie Manuel said, "but we're still there."

"It's still mathematically possible," Cliff Lee said, "and we're not going to give up until it's impossible."

"Crazier things have happened," Juan Pierre said.

There were two hits by players wearing red pinstripes on Sunday - singles by John Mayberry Jr. and Kevin Frandsen. The lone Phillies run scored on a walk, a throwing error, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly.

Lee deftly eluded trouble and lasted eight innings on a day when, as Manuel said, Atlanta "could have scored five or 10 runs there." He was rewarded with a loss and even the rosiest optimists were silenced.

St. Louis defeated Chicago shortly after the Phillies rolled over to extend its stranglehold on the second wild-card berth. Manuel insisted that the Phillies would not change direction and start experiments such as Chase Utley at third base or Darin Ruf in left field. None of that will happen until all hope is dashed.

"We're breathing yet," Manuel said.

A season teeming with nightmares presents another one Tuesday when Washington arrives for a three-game series. The Nationals' magic number to clinch their first National League East title is five. There is an outside chance it happens on the grass at Citizens Bank Park, a cringe-worthy image for Phillies fans.

If anything, the Phillies can play for the incentive of avoiding that ignominy.

They were sluggish Sunday against Tim Hudson. Even Lee, who survived 117 pitches, was not his best. That is saying something, considering he fanned 11, walked none and permitted one earned run.

Lee set a major-league record by throwing at least six innings while walking one or fewer for the 15th consecutive start. The previous record of 14 was held by Christy Mathewson and Greg Maddux.

"Things went their way today and they didn't for us," Lee said. "We hit a lot of balls hard right at their guys and they hit balls not so hard that just happened to find their way through. That was the difference in the game."

Or, as Pierre said: "It's not fun, that's for sure."

Lee (6-8) served a no-doubt home-run ball to Braves backup catcher David Ross in the second inning. Atlanta threatened in the third with two singles that found holes. Jason Heyward tapped one back to Lee, who bobbled it for an error that loaded the bases with none out.

Only one run scored. That still chafed Lee.

"He kept his composure early," Manuel said. "He was tremendous. It could have been much bigger than it was."

Lee's ERA dipped to 3.18, and a normalization of his numbers qualifies as a late-season silver lining. In his last 15 starts, Lee has struck out 106 and walked nine. He has been as good as any pitcher in baseball since the start of July.

It represents little consolation in a despondent year.

"You can go back and what if this and what if that with a lot of things," Lee said. "There are a lot of strange things that have happened."

That the Phillies consider themselves alive through 153 games may be the strangest development of all.

Deuces Wild

Here is each contender's road ahead for the NL's second wild-card spot:

St. Louis Cardinals (82-71)

Playoff probability, according to 75.8 percent.

Games remaining: 9.

Schedule: At Houston (Sept. 24-26); vs. Washington (Sept. 28-30); vs. Cincinnati (Oct. 1-3).

Milwaukee Brewers (79-73)

Playoff probability: 17.5 percent.

Games remaining: 10.

Schedule: At Washington (Sept. 24); at Cincinnati (Sept. 25-27); vs. Houston (Sept. 28-30); vs. San Diego (Oct. 1-3).

Los Angeles Dodgers (79-74)

Playoff probability: 4.5 percent.

Games remaining: 9.

Schedule: At San Diego (Sept. 25-27); vs. Colorado (Sept. 28-30); vs. San Francisco (Oct. 1-3).

Arizona Diamondbacks (77-75)

Playoff probability: 2.0 percent.

Games remaining: 10.

Schedule: At Colorado (Sept. 24); at San Francisco (Sept. 25-27); vs. Chicago Cubs (Sept. 28-30); vs. Colorado (Oct. 1-3).

PHILLIES (77-76)

Playoff probability: 0.2 percent.

Games remaining: 9.

Schedule: Vs. Washington (Sept. 25-27); at Miami (Sept. 28-30); at Washington (Oct. 1-3).


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