Phillies Feel the Pinch Astros get to Wagner in ninth Astros get to Wagner in 9th with two steals

Posted: September 07, 2005

It has been an opportunity lost.

The Phillies understood the importance of this week's series against the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park.

They held a half-game lead in the National League wild-card race, with the chance to beat a team they had not beaten since 2003. With a chance to improve their lead before they return to play in the tough NL East. With a chance to excite a starved fan base.

Instead, they wake up today in third place for the wild card after last night's 2-1 loss. The Phillies, who will try to avoid a sweep with a win tonight, find themselves 1 1/2 games behind Houston, having lost four in a row and seven of their last 10. The Florida Marlins moved into second place with a victory last night.

"It's going to be the last week and we're still going to be talking about this race," catcher Todd Pratt said. "We have a long way to go. I think as long as we keep playing like this, we'll be there and you'll be asking us about this at the end of the season."

But the situation is urgent.

"Tomorrow is not a must win, but tomorrow is a game we damn sure need to win," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I can say this about our team: When you talk about best ball, making mistakes is not your best ball."

The Astros broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the ninth inning with the nearly flawless Billy Wagner (4-2) on the mound. Wagner walked Lance Berkman with one out, and pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett stole second and third.

Pratt double-clutched his throw both times.

"I had no shot at the first one anyway," Pratt said. "I'm sitting down and in, and he threw it up and away. I was lucky I even caught it. I probably shouldn't have even thrown it because I was off balance. The running lead at second, I double-clutched. You get one chance. The ball stuck in my glove, and that was it."

Wagner blamed himself.

"I've got no pickoff move, and I [stink] going to first," Wagner said. "Anybody who watches baseball knows that."

Jason Lane singled to left to score Bruntlett.

Lane's hit wasted another fine effort by Phillies righthander Jon Lieber, who allowed five hits, a run and no walks in seven innings. Lieber is 4-2 with a 2.85 ERA since allowing nine runs in 4 2/3 innings in Colorado on July 31. His record should be better.

The Phillies have scored just 11 runs in his last six starts and been shut out twice. In fact, the Phils have been shut out nine times this season, and Lieber has pitched in five of those games.

Through the first four innings, Houston righthander Roy Oswalt looked as if he would make it 10 shutouts - he threw a complete game against the Phils on July 26 at Minute Maid Park. Oswalt threw just 20 pitches in three innings last night and retired the first 10 batters.

Lieber's only mistake came in the first, when Craig Biggio hit a one-out home run to make the score 1-0. Lieber retired the next six batters, and after Oswalt and Willy Taveras hit back-to-back, one-out singles in the third, he retired 13 of 14.

Ryan Howard hit his 14th homer of the season in the fifth on a first-pitch fastball to left-center. The Phils had good chances in the seventh and eighth. They had runners on first and second with one out in the seventh, but failed to score.

Jimmy Rollins' leadoff single in the eighth should have been a double. But Rollins took a bad step as he rounded first base, missed the bag and had to turn back. Kenny Lofton's bunt moved him to second. Chase Utley struck out for the second out, and Oswalt intentionally walked Bobby Abreu to face Pat Burrell.

Burrell worked a 3-2 count, then Oswalt threw an off-speed pitch away to load the bases.

Howard stepped in but grounded out to end the inning.

"It's just frustrating," Lieber said. "We've been close. Right now, we just need to bounce back. As long as we stay right there, we could get a nice streak going. We'll see where we are at the end of the regular season."

They have 23 games to go.

Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki

at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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