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Phils stumble in Little League Classic

Another chance to gain ground on Braves goes awry
MLB.com @ToddZolecki

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The Phillies are an imperfect team in an imperfect division in an imperfect league.

The imperfections are not only keeping them alive in the National League East, they are keeping them in the thick of the hunt. The Phillies have not played well for a couple of weeks, including Sunday night's 8-2 loss to the Mets at the second annual MLB Little League Classic at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, but they somehow remain just a half-game behind the first-place Braves. They somehow remain tied with three other teams for the third-best record in the NL.

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The Phillies are an imperfect team in an imperfect division in an imperfect league.

The imperfections are not only keeping them alive in the National League East, they are keeping them in the thick of the hunt. The Phillies have not played well for a couple of weeks, including Sunday night's 8-2 loss to the Mets at the second annual MLB Little League Classic at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, but they somehow remain just a half-game behind the first-place Braves. They somehow remain tied with three other teams for the third-best record in the NL.

View Full Game Coverage

"We know that we haven't played as well as we can and we're still a half-game out of first place, so it's hard to be too frustrated," Phillies left fielder Rhys Hoskins said. "It could be worse. We could not be in striking distance. So, yeah, frustrating, but I think at the same time you can find some positive in being a half-game out."

:: Little League Classic presented by GEICO ::

Since the Phillies swept the Marlins in a four-game series on Aug. 5 to improve to 63-48 and take a 1 1/2-game lead over the Braves, they are just 5-8. In that stretch they have lost two of three to the Padres, who have the worst record in the NL, and three of five to the Mets, whose record is the third-worst.

Hoskins is correct. It could be worse, but fortunately for the Phillies, the Braves went only 8-7 in that stretch. The Nationals went 5-9.

"We understand that we've had some missed opportunities to take some steps forward here," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "So at this very moment I'm not thinking about how fortunate we are. I do feel like we're in a good spot in the standings, but I'm thinking about the fact that we need to take the day off, regroup and get ready to play the Nationals."

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Video: NYM@PHI: Mets, Phils show sportsmanship after game

Right-hander Nick Pivetta had the opportunity to move the Phillies back into first place with a strong performance, but he had trouble locating his pitches and allowed six runs on eight hits in just 3 2/3 innings.

He allowed four consecutive hits in a four-run second inning. He allowed two more runs in the fourth.

Pivetta went 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA over his previous three starts, striking out 19 and walking two in 18 innings. He seemed to be turning a corner, putting a rough June and July behind him. He could not keep the good times rolling.

"I was leaving way too many good pitches to hit," he said. "I came out there pretty good in the first inning, then they got on top of it pretty quick there, gave up those four runs, which wasn't acceptable on my part."

The Phillies could not touch Mets left-hander Jason Vargas, who entered the game 2-8 with an 8.10 ERA. He allowed six hits and two runs in 5 1/3 innings. Carlos Santana's two-run homer in the sixth provided the only offense.

Video: NYM@PHI: Santana drills a 2-run homer off scoreboard

The Phillies hoped for a better way to end a long day. They flew in from Philadelphia in the morning. They toured the Little League complex at Lamade Stadium in the early afternoon. They had fun with it.

Those good vibes vanished by the second inning.

The Phillies boarded a flight late Sunday night for Washington. They do not play Monday, but they open a three-game series on Tuesday against the Nationals. They hope to get back on track against a team that entered the season with World Series aspirations but is suddenly fighting for its postseason life.

The Phillies are in better shape than the Nats. It just hasn't felt like it lately.

"There's still quite a bit of baseball left," Pivetta said. "There's not a ton, but there's still a good enough amount where nights like these you can brush them off your shoulders and take the off-day tomorrow, regain your strength, go into Washington.

"I know these men in here. Tomorrow we're going to go in there, we're going to look for the sweep against those Nationals."

Video: NYM@PHI: Phils enjoy popcorn, oranges in the dugout

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Hoskins missed a three-run home run by just a few feet with two outs in the third inning, smashing a ball just to the right of the right-field foul pole. He could not connect again, popping out to Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil to end the inning.

"He mixed well," Hoskins said of Vargas. "He kept us off balance. That's kind of the pitcher that he is. He executed tonight. Sometimes you run into that. I wish I had more. He just kept the ball off the barrel."

Video: NYM@PHI: McNeil robs Hoskins with tough sliding stop

SOUND SMART
Odubel Herrera singled to right field with one out in the third for the Phillies' first hit. He hit eighth for only the second time in his career and the first time since his rookie season in 2015. He entered the game hitting just .223 with a .647 OPS since his 45-game on-base streak ended on May 19. Kapler is hoping the No. 8 spot helps Herrera get back on track.

"One of the things it naturally forces you to do is become a tiny bit more patient, see the ball a little bit longer and understand that the pitcher is hitting behind you," Kapler said. "So you have to be hunting a pitch to drive and only a pitch to drive."

SANTANA MANS HOT CORNER
Santana put the Phillies on the board in the sixth, when he crushed a two-run homer to center field. It was his 18th homer of the season. He also played third base in the top of the eighth inning to clear a spot for first baseman Justin Bour, who pinch-hit for Scott Kingery in the seventh. It was the first time Santana has played third base since 2014.

"We can be creative with it," Kapler said. "We've talked to Carlos about it for several weeks now. Just planting seeds. Or, since we acquired Bour. It's not something we plan on doing regularly, but in a situation where we're down five runs and we have to find some offense and we might be able to get Bour two at-bats in a game, like we were able to do tonight, you probably have to take that shot. Santana has played third base successfully in the past. He takes ground balls there throughout the season. He prepares himself mentally for that opportunity. We'll use it when we need to."

Video: NYM@PHI: Kapler on LL Classic experience, 8-2 loss

HE SAID IT
"I think we're in a good spot in the standings right now despite having lost some tough games and some tough series." -- Kapler

UP NEXT
The Phillies do not play Monday, but they return to action on Tuesday night when they open a three-game series against the Nationals at Nationals Park. Right-hander Vince Velasquez (8-9, 4.13 ERA) takes on Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark (8-12, 4.13 ERA) in the opener. It's a big series for both teams, but the Phillies could dim the Nats' hopes for winning the NL East title with a couple of wins.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Philadelphia Phillies, Nick Pivetta, Carlos Santana