Paul Hagen | 3-2 win quite the rarity for this crew

Posted: August 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - The Phillies' magic number is three.

That ain't a good thing.

There was a trivia question hidden in last night's dramatic win over the Washington Nationals, courtesy of Russell Branyan's pinch-hit homer in the eighth

inning. And, not to let any fizz out of another exciting moment, it doesn't necessarily bode well for their hopes the rest of the season.

Q. How many games have the Phils won when scoring three or fewer runs?

A. Two.

Until Branyan's blast gave the Phillies the 3-2 win last night at RFK Stadium, it was just one. Charlie Manuel knew that. But he peeked.

"I saw that somewhere the

other day," the manager said. "I was kind of surprised. Usually

I know every stat there is, but

I didn't know that one. This time we scored three and it was enough, but usually it takes more for us to win."

It was also only the eighth time this season that the Phillies have won by one run, compared to 19 losses.

"Those are concerns," Manuel said.

Concerns because there is nothing quite as deflating as wasting a well-pitched game. That's true for the rare club with a deep rotation and a solid, well-stocked bullpen. It's even more of a gut shot for a team like the Phillies that has been trying to piece its pitching together since the start of the season. Remember Zack Segovia?

For most of last night's game, it appeared that was exactly where the Phillies were headed. They had only one hit through seven innings against Nationals starter Shawn Hill, who was coming off the disabled list to make his first start since May 11, and reliever Luis Ayala.

Maybe it was just a 1-day hangover, easily explained by going on the road and playing in a half-empty stadium after an emotion-packed weekend at home before sellout crowds.

Maybe the Nationals' pitchers were just that good. Tip your cap, as the baseball people say.

Or maybe it was just one of those nights. It happens, even

to a team that leads the league

in runs scored by a wide margin.

Whatever the reason, it was a reminder that hitting comes and goes, fading in and out like the signal from a faraway radio

station.

It's possible to slug your way into the playoffs, but it's a much bumpier road than relying on pitching and defense. There's a reason people always talk about how good pitching generally shuts down good hitting. That's because it's true. From now until the end of the season, when the Phillies play good teams head-to-head, most of them figure to have pretty good pitching. And that reality will only be magnified if they make it to the postseason for the second time in 24 years.

Without Branyan's home run, the Phillies most likely would have wasted a good start by Kyle Lohse. He gave up two cheap runs in his 6 2/3 innings in a start that was reminiscent of too many of his starts for the Reds, before he was traded to Philadelphia, when he had the fourth-worst run support in the league.

It also puts a much sharper

focus on every decision the

manager makes. For example, with the game still a scoreless tie in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals had runners on first and second with one out after a pair of infield hits.

It would have gone against the book for Manuel to have a defensive replacement in the seventh inning of a tie game. But when pinch-hitter Tony Batista hit a fly ball to left that landed behind Pat Burrell and short-hopped the fence for a two-run double, it became a question that had to be asked.

"He [Burrell] was playing kind of deep. He just wasn't fast enough to get to it," Manuel said. "I talk about that a lot. I like to leave him in there [unless the Phillies are ahead]. It can be

important to take him out defensively at the right time, but if he stays in he might get an extra

at-bat.

"Sometimes you wonder. But that's a decision you have to make."

This time, the decision to have Branyan bat trumped the decision to leave Burrell in. Still, when you're counting on a guy to come off the bench and give you a longball to win . . . well, your margin for error doesn't get much thinner than that.

On a night when Abraham

Lincoln won the Presidents Race at RFK Stadium, the world will little note nor long remember last night's win. There will be more games tonight, and the night after that and the night

after that, and pretty soon it will all run together.

For the Phillies, it will stand out for a while. They were the last team in baseball this year to win a game when scoring three or fewer runs. And they don't need two hands to count how many they have now. Just two fingers. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com.

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