"We've got to find a way. We've got to keep plugging," Victorino said after the Phillies finished off a disappointing series in which they dropped two of three to the Braves and fell six games out of first place for the first time since September 2007. "We lost our starting shortstop, we lost our starting second baseman, we lost our starting third baseman. We lost a lot of key players . . . But, again, I'm not going to sit here and make excuses for us. That's why you have 25 guys, and we've been able to do it in the past, to find a way to win."
But there is a thin line between excuse-making and acknowledging reality, and the Phillies' short-term reality might have been hammered home last night. Even in a game in which Victorino and Ryan Howard homered, Jimmy Rollins hit two doubles and Raul Ibanez drew two walks, the Phillies fell short.
The Braves, meanwhile, were sparked by two contact hitters at the top of the lineup, with Martin Prado hitting two home runs and Omar Infante going 2-for-5 with a run. After the game, Manuel labeled the duo the "Two Polancos," comparing them to the contact-hitting third baseman he has been without for close to 2 weeks now. (The Phillies are hopeful he will return from a bout with tendinitis within the next 2 weeks.)
Prado, a Phillies-killer throughout his career, finished the series with three home runs. The Phillies, meanwhile, finished it at 43-40 and will close out the first half with a four-game series against a first-place Reds team that took two out of three from them last week in Cincinnati.
"They're for real, and they're good," Manuel said of the Braves, who have won seven of 12 games against the Phillies. "At the same time, when we're clicking, and when we have our team going, we have that edge."
The offense was not the chief culprit last night. Veteran lefthander Jamie Moyer retired 15 of the first 17 batters he faced before allowing six runs in the sixth inning, three of them coming on a bases-clearing double by Brian McCann and two more coming on a two-run homer by Matt Diaz.
"Poor execution," said Moyer, now 9-8 with a 4.51 ERA. "That's all I can say."
The Phillies had taken a 3-1 lead in the fifth on a two-run homer by Howard, his 16th of the season. They tacked on two more runs late, including one in the eighth inning on a solo home run by Victorino, but were shut down in the ninth by closer Billy Wagner.
"When the series started, I thought to myself, just win the series," Manuel said. "I think it's very important for us to start winning series, taking two out of three . . . When you beat somebody three straight, especially someone like the Braves, that's tough, but we've got to start winning series. We've got to start playing better."
Now, the Phillies must wait until the last 2 weeks of the season to face the Braves. There is a three-gamer that starts on Sept. 20 in Philadelphia, and another three-gamer on the final weekend of the season in Atlanta.
"I hear people say we're a second-half team," Manuel said. "I'm not saying we're not, but at the same time, we don't want to get too far behind. We're getting real close to the second half. We should start kicking it in gear a little bit."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.