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Phils unable to back Nola in finale vs. Braves

MLB.com @ToddZolecki

ATLANTA -- The Phillies shuffled their rotation earlier this month because they wanted Aaron Nola to face the Braves twice in the season's final eight games. They imagined a scenario where their ace, pitching in the most high-pressured of situations, helped them clinch their first National League East title since 2011.

Instead, the Braves clinched the NL East on Saturday and Nola pitched Sunday at SunTrust Park with nothing on the line. The Phillies lost, 2-1. They needed to sweep the Braves to remain in title contention, but were swept instead.

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ATLANTA -- The Phillies shuffled their rotation earlier this month because they wanted Aaron Nola to face the Braves twice in the season's final eight games. They imagined a scenario where their ace, pitching in the most high-pressured of situations, helped them clinch their first National League East title since 2011.

Instead, the Braves clinched the NL East on Saturday and Nola pitched Sunday at SunTrust Park with nothing on the line. The Phillies lost, 2-1. They needed to sweep the Braves to remain in title contention, but were swept instead.

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"It's frustrating at times," Nola said about the Phillies' late-season fade, "but I think it's a learning process for us. I think it's a big step this year from last year. We had a month last year, I remember we had a month when I feel like we lost every day. But I feel like each year we're learning more, especially bringing in a lot of new guys this year. We're learning more about each other. I just think that's what baseball is. We've just got to stay focused from here on out and try to finish the year strong."

Sunday's loss officially eliminated the Phillies from NL Wild Card contention, but perhaps more important, it dropped them to 78-77. It is a remarkable record considering the Phillies had the second-best record (63-48) in the NL on Aug. 5. They have the worst record (15-29) since then.

The Phillies must finish 4-3 to finish above .500.

Video: PHI@ATL: Kapler on Nola, loss to Braves

"Everybody understands that there's a lot of value in having a winning season," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think that that's necessarily something that you have to flag or highlight. It's pretty baked into the DNA of these players who want to win."

The Phillies play four games this week against the Rockies in Denver before finishing the season at home this weekend against the Braves.

The priorities for those final seven games have shifted.

"It's a balance," Kapler said. "We're definitely going to play our young players. Those guys are going to get reps. Scott Kingery is going to play. As long as J.P. Crawford is healthy, he's going to play. Jorge Alfaro is going to play. Aaron Altherr is going to play. Odubel Herrera is going to play. Some of our acquisitions you may see in more reserve roles. Our guys are going to have opportunities to play baseball going forward."

Video: PHI@ATL: Hoskins lays out to rob Acuna Jr. in the 8th

Nola will make his final scheduled start Friday night at Citizens Bank Park. He is 16-6 wit a 2.45 ERA. He allowed two runs in six innings while striking out six on Sunday, giving him 205 1/3 innings pitched for the season. He is a National League Cy Young Award candidate, but he is expected to finish somewhere behind Mets ace Jacob deGrom.

Nola has nothing left to prove, but Kapler said if Nola wants to pitch one more time, he will let him.

"If he has six more innings this year, it's not going to make a material difference, in my opinion, whether he can add on to that next year or whether we have to scale him back," Kapler said.

Who knows? Maybe Nola's final start will carry some importance after all. Maybe they need him to pitch well to help the team finish above .500.

How the goals have changed.

"We definitely had a better year this year than last year," Nola said. "I think we've got a better team overall. We didn't win the division like we planned. That was our goal. The Braves played better than us this weekend, [but] I think just going forward we have confidence in everybody. Being able to finish the year off strong is important to us."

Video: PHI@ATL: Hernandez turns an impressive DP in the 3rd

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Kingery ends slump: Phillies rookie Scott Kingery hit a solo home run to left field in the third inning to tie the game at 1. It was Kingery's eighth home run of the season and his first since Aug. 24. He finished 2-for-3 after hitting .063 (1-for-16) in his previous eight games. Kapler said he would like to see Kingery play second base before the end of the season, although he will not force it. It is not a stretch to think the Phillies could trade second baseman Cesar Hernandez in the offseason, opening up a spot for Kingery.

"I mean at this point, I think it might feel a little bit weird to go over there," Kingery said, "but I think to get back to the natural position, maybe just find some rhythm over there, get a least a couple games over there -- so if something ends up happening and I play there a little more next season, I'll be ready for it."

Video: PHI@ATL: Kingery belts a solo home run to left in 3rd

INJURY UPDATES
Alfaro has a mildly strained right quadriceps, which is why he left the game in the seventh. He is day to day. Crawford likely would have started at shortstop Sunday, but he has been bothered with a sore right shoulder.

"He's kind of continually getting better," Kapler said. Outfielder Nick Williams has a swollen right middle finger following a recent slide. He hopes to play again this season, but he said he also wants to enter the offseason healthy.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Braves left-hander Max Fried surprised Odubel Herrera with his pickoff in the sixth inning. How do we know? Herrera did not even move as the ball landed in first baseman Lucas Duda's mitt. Duda easily tagged Herrera for the second out of the inning. Herrera seemed baffled, putting his hands on his hips in disbelief. His reaction drew laughs from the crowd.

Video: PHI@ATL: Fried picks off Herrera in the 6th

HE SAID IT
"Any time you can take some good swings and some good at-bats, you know, kind of reminds you and gives you some confidence that you can do this. It's a funny game. The whole season has been ups and downs, and to be able to go out and do that today and hopefully ride that into the next seven games, it'll be good." -- Kingery

UP NEXT
Phillies right-hander Zach Eflin (11-7, 4.09 ERA) faces Rockies left-hander Tyler Anderson (6-9, 4.76 ERA) on Monday at 8:40 p.m. ET in the first game of a four-game series at Coors Field. The Phillies could use the season's final seven games to get looks at some of the young players on the 40-man roster in preparation for what should be a busy offseason with potential for plenty of turnover.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.

Philadelphia Phillies