Phillies hand Braves fourth consecutive loss

ATLANTA -- Roy Oswalt appears to be coming around at just the right time.

The playoffs are about to begin, and the forgotten member of Philadelphia's dream rotation is doing his best to make everyone forget his struggles this season.

Oswalt pitched three-hit ball over six scoreless innings in his final tuneup for the postseason, and the Phillies handed the slumping Atlanta Braves a 7-1 loss Tuesday night.

Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Jimmy Rollins homered for Philadelphia, but Oswalt (9-10) was the main attraction given the struggles he's had even while the Phillies romped to their fifth straight NL East title.

"My arm strength is back," Oswalt said. "My breaking pitch was working pretty well. Hopefully, it'll carry into the playoffs."

A back injury kept Oswalt out for all of July, and he's struggled to regain his consistency since returning. But this was his second scoreless outing in the last three and a good sign that he's ready to contribute in the playoffs.

"I just needed to take a little bit of time," Oswalt said. "I missed too much to go out there and be a 100 percent right out of the chute."

While the Phillies are tuning up, the Braves are just trying to survive. They'll head to the 162nd game with their season on the brink after a potentially historic collapse.

"It's like living out a bad dream," Chipper Jones said.

Derek Lowe (9-17) had another miserable outing, surrendering five runs in four-plus innings, and the Braves took another step toward giving away a playoff berth that seemed certain just a few weeks ago.

The St. Louis Cardinals pulled even with the Braves, rallying from an early
5-0 deficit to beat the Houston Astros 13-6. Atlanta took sole
possession of the NL wild-card lead on June 20 and had held it
until Tuesday, according to STATS LLC.

"We've got one game to play in the month of September, then October comes around and it's a new month," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "There's not a person in that locker room who I wouldn't want to be on my team to play that game."

"I would hope so," Jones said, trying to make light of the grim situation. "We're pretty much all he has anyway."

Atlanta, which had an 8½-game lead just three weeks ago, will send its ace to the mound on Wednesday against the Phillies. Tim Hudson will try to wrap up the wild card or at least force a one-game playoff against Cardinals, which would be Thursday night in St. Louis.

"It is what it is," Gonzalez said. "We've played 161 games and it comes down to one. We've done it to ourselves. No excuses there. We've got to go get it tomorrow."

Lowe has been a $15 million bust for the Braves, losing all five of his September starts and drawing the ire of Atlanta fans. They cheered lustily when Gonzalez popped out of the dugout to make a pitching change after Lowe gave up a leadoff single in the fifth, then heckled the high-priced right-hander as he trudged to the dugout -- and straight to the showers without so much as a pause.

"I'm man enough to say I've had a terrible year," Lowe said. "But we've still got a chance. Our best pitcher is going tomorrow. This isn't about me. This is about this organization and how much hard work these guys have put in this season."

The Phillies, winning their 101st game of the season, jumped ahead on the eighth pitch of the game. Lowe served up one to Utley, who drove it into the center-field seats for his 11th homer.

An uneasy feeling settled over Turner Field. It would only get worse.

The Phillies extended the lead to 3-0 in the third on Rollins' run-scoring single and Pence's sacrifice fly, the inning helped along by Lowe's ill-advised decision to try to get the lead runner at third on Oswalt's sacrifice. Carlos Ruiz beat the throw and everyone was safe.

The advantage grew to 4-0 in the fourth when two singles set up another sacrifice fly, this one by Placido Polanco.

Philadelphia finished off Lowe in the fifth. When Rollins led off with a single, rookie Arodys Vizcaino was summoned from the bullpen. But the youngster gave up a towering two-run homer to Pence, his 22nd, that turned the game into a full-fledged rout.

Rollins added his 16th homer in the seventh off another Braves rookie, Julio Teheran.

The Braves fans stopped booing long enough to cheer on the last-place Astros from afar, breaking into periodic chants of "Let's Go Houston!"

"I heard it," said Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, who was acquired from the Astros at the trade deadline. "I was actually bobbing my head to it. I'm right there with 'em. Let's go Astros. You can't be against that."

The top three hitters in the Phillies' lineup -- Rollins, Utley and Pence -- combined to go 6 for 12 with three homers, five RBIs and four runs scored. Rollins had three hits and Pence drove in three runs.

Manager Charlie Manuel improved his record in Philadelphia to 645-488, tying Gene Mauch (645-684) for the most wins in franchise history.

"I'll get more out of it when I beat him," Manuel joked. "That's a good sign of the teams we've had."

No one in the Atlanta lineup did anything until Martin Prado hit a meaningless homer off Kyle Kendrick in the ninth to keep the Braves from their second shutout in four games. They've scored only four runs in that span.

Staked to a comfortable lead, Oswalt went on cruise control. The right-hander went six innings and allowed just two runners to get as far as second base. His only real trouble came in the third when Bourn singled, stole second and Prado reached as Rollins bobbled a grounder at shortstop for an error. But Jones, who had an MRI on his ailing right knee before the game, grounded into a double play.

Now, the season might be down to the final game.

"You never expect this to happen to you," Jones said.

Game notes
The Phillies won their third in a row and improved to 11-6 against the Braves in the season series. ... RHP Jair Jurrjens is scheduled to pitch Thursday in the Florida instructional league in what the Braves are hoping will be a tuneup for the playoffs. He's been out with a bone bruise in his right knee. ... The Braves had hoped to save Hudson (16-10) for the playoffs, but their No. 1 starter has to go Wednesday with the season on the line. Joe Blanton (1-2) gets the nod for the Phillies, who also plan to use starter Cole Hamels for a couple of innings in relief, as well as a series of relievers. ... Braves SS Alex Gonzalez left the game in the second inning after re-injuring his strained right calf. Fredi Gonzalez said the injury appears more serious than before and he doesn't expect Gonzalez to play on Wednesday.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.