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07/03/09 12:10 AM ET

With loss, Phillies drop into first-place tie

Club unable to put it all together as tough stretch continues

ATLANTA -- Teammates quietly milled about the visitors' clubhouse late Thursday night at Turner Field.

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley sat alone on a black couch in the middle, his feet propped on the table in front of him and a plate of food in his lap. He took slow bites with long stares into the distance in between.

He seemed to have plenty on his mind following a 5-2 loss to the Braves, which dropped the Phillies into a first-place tie with the Marlins in the National League East.

"How long has it been?" Utley said, asked if he is surprised the Phillies have been in a tailspin for so long.

Eighteen games.

Three weeks.

"That's not very good," Utley said.

"It has been a while, huh?" shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "It's been rough."

The Phillies have lost 14 of their past 18 games. The Mets, who open a three-game series against the Phillies on Friday at Citizens Bank Park, are one game behind. The Braves, who swept them in a three-game series, are two games back.

"Without question, everyone has a shot in the division," Braves left fielder Matt Diaz said. "The Mets are going to start getting healthy. The Marlins are as solid as they appeared to be earlier in the year when everyone though they were the favorite. The Phillies are defending World [Series] champs. When they get [Raul] Ibanez back, that's a different offense."

The Phillies have hit .233 and scored just 76 runs (4.22 per game) in their past 18 games. The rotation has a 5.23 ERA, while the bullpen has a 6.56 ERA with four blown saves.

"Times like this can build character for a team," Utley said. "That's the way I look at it."

The Phillies have looked flat, although it is easy to look flat when a team is not hitting or pitching well or playing good defense. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel called a team meeting following a June 28 loss to the Blue Jays in Toronto. Manuel addressed a few things in that meeting, including his belief that there are too many distractions. That is something pitching coach Rich Dubee also mentioned before Thursday's loss.

"I feel like we're coming to the park prepared," Utley said. "We obviously haven't been playing that well, but we haven't seen a change in our attitude for the negative. It's obviously a rough stretch. We're definitely not making any excuses, but we do need to start playing better in all parts of the ball: offensively, defensively. We need to pitch better. That's the bottom line.

"How do you do that? You stay motivated. You stay positive. You have to come to the field every day to prepare and prepare to win."

Phillies left-hander J.A. Happ allowed seven hits and two runs in seven innings. Manuel praised Happ, who passed a big test in the seventh when he had runners on first and third with two outs, but got Chipper Jones to fly out to center field to end the inning.

Happ kept the scored tied at 2. The Phillies had a chance to take the lead in the eighth, but Jayson Werth was thrown out at the plate when he tried to score from third on a wild pitch from Braves left-hander Mike Gonzalez.

"Werth is one of the best baserunners in baseball," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I thought he would make it because he's so good. I like him a lot. He's a manager's dream. We made the play and got him out. Maybe it saved us."

It might have. Manuel called it a major shift in momentum. Maybe it was. Because Ryan Madson allowed three runs in the eighth inning to give the Braves the 5-2 lead. Madson is 0-3 with a 10.80 ERA and three blown saves in his past seven appearances.

He has been battling command problems.

"I don't think I got beat by location," Madson said. "I think I just got beat tonight."

It has been that way for the Phillies for weeks. They hit, they can't pitch. They pitch, they can't hit. And sometimes, they can't do either.

"It shows really how dependent teams are on pitching and timely hitting," said Rollins, who snapped a career-worst 0-for-28 slump with a single in the third. "When you get one without the other you find a way to lose. When you get them together you find ways to win. We've been leaving them on opposite ends."

The Phillies returned to Philadelphia on Thursday night with a nine-game homestand against the Mets, Reds and Pirates before the All-Star break. That normally might be considered a good thing, except the Phils left for their just completed nine-game road trip following a 1-8 homestand -- one of the worst homestands in the franchise's 127-year history.

"Our game is not together," Manuel said. "We're all screwed up. The nights we hit, we don't pitch. The nights we pitch, we don't hit. We're losing games late. We're playing bad baseball."

It can't continue much longer.

Like Rollins said, it has been a while.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.