Pennant Race Truly Begins in New York

With the exception of a three-game series in Cincinnati, the Phillies face pennant contenders New York, Washington, Atlanta, Florida and Houston through the rest of the season. It all begins tonight at Shea Stadium as the Phillies and Mets open a three-game set.

No more cupcakes.

Even though they lost two out of three to the Diamondbacks over the weekend, the Phillies have done an admirable job of playing Whack-A-West Team in August, and their reward is the lead in the National League wild-card race. Now, the leisure cruise ends. Of the Phils' final 31 games, 28 will come against teams with winning records. That's because 25 of those games are against fellow NL East teams, all of whom haven't dabbled in the realm of sub-.500 records very often this season. The long run against East teams starts Tuesday with three games against the Mets at Shea Stadium.

Sure, all of the teams in the NL East have flaws. The Braves are leaning on a lot of rookies. The Phillies lack a go-to guy in the starting rotation and are inconsistent offensively. The Marlins lack depth in the bullpen and also have an offense that goes cold too often. The Mets are shaky in the back of the bullpen, although their starting pitching has been so good lately it hasn't mattered. And the Nationals ... well, it was tough to figure out their strong points when they were leading the division.

Yet for five months, the NL East teams have been amazingly solid, if unspectacular. Now, thanks to the unbalanced scheduled devised by the schedule makers, September will serve as the ultimate survival test for a division as evenly matched as this one. At least one team probably will wilt in the late-summer heat, maybe two. But it is almost certain that the NL East won't know which team - or teams - will represent it in the playoffs until the final weekend of the regular season.

"Whoever gets in," said Phils' closer Billy Wagner "definitely is going to earn it. You can't find a tougher division than this."

The Phils will need to improve their .440 winning percentage (22-28) against their divisional rivals, the lowest in-division percentage for any team still holding postseason aspirations. Manager Charlie Manuel wasn't surprised to see that the Mets will be trotting out the hottest pitcher in their rotation (Jae Seo) and two potential Hall of Famers (Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine) against his team.

"It seems like every time we play a team in our division, we get their best pitchers," Manuel said.

The Phillies will counter with surprisingly effective rookie right-hander Rob Tejeda on Tuesday, Brett Myers on Wednesday and veteran Jon Lieber on Thursday.

While the Phils will need to win series against the Mets and all of the NL East teams to earn the wild-card berth, Manuel still has his eyes trained on the Braves. While Manuel wants his players to respect the opposition, he recognizes that the Braves have gotten far too many helpings of respect over the past dozen or so years.

"The Braves haven't won nothing yet," Manuel said. "They aren't selling (playoff) tickets yet. If they are, maybe someone will catch them."

The Phillies will have their chance over the season's final five weeks.


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