Phillies 8, Nationals 4

There is one team playing this weekend at RFK Stadium that is still very much in the chase for the playoffs, and it shows, because the Philadelphia Phillies were out on the field early yesterday afternoon taking batting practice, realizing that extra work on the penultimate day of the regular season might beget the chance to work deep into October.

And there is another team playing this weekend at RFK whose players have cardboard boxes in front of their lockers, physically packing up after a long season, mentally ready to move on. There is no more batting practice on the field, no more bunting drills for the pitchers. Who can blame the Washington Nationals, really?

"We're not going to the next level," first baseman Nick Johnson said. "It's disappointing."

So over the course of an 8-4 Philadelphia win, their second in as many games here this weekend, the Phillies showed why they, and not the Nationals, enter the 162nd game of the year with a chance to catch Houston for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. If the Phillies beat the Nationals today, and the Astros lose to the Chicago Cubs, the teams will face each other in a one-game playoff tomorrow in Philadelphia.

"It feels good," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said. "You like to know that if we come out here and win tomorrow, and they lose, we can take it right on to Philly."

The Nationals' road will end in much different fashion. They entered the weekend needing just one win in the final three games to ensure a winning record after their first season in Washington, the city's first season with baseball in 34 years. And now, it comes down to the final day. Win, and they're 82-80, and can't finish alone in last place in the National League East, the division that they led for much of June and July. Lose, and it's an even split, 81-81, and there's a chance they could wind up as the worst team in baseball's most balanced division.

"That's not something we want," outfielder Ryan Church said.

But it is the danger of meeting a team that has so much on the line. Last week, the Nationals went to Florida and faced the Marlins, who were splitting apart at the seams, with their manager under fire and the clubhouse in revolt. So Washington waltzed through with a sweep.

But this weekend, the Phillies seem to understand exactly what is at stake.

"When they're focused like they're focused right now," Nationals right-hander John Patterson said, "they can be dangerous."

Which they were. In front of an announced crowd of 32,903 -- many of whom seemed to have come from Philadelphia -- the Phillies' second baseman, Chase Utley, came up with two home runs. Their lumbering rookie first baseman, Ryan Howard, homered and doubled to drive in four runs. And their leadoff man, Jimmy Rollins, hit the first pitch of the game down the first base line for a double, extending his hitting streak to 35 games, tying him for the ninth longest -- ever.

"They were on me from the first pitch," Patterson said.

Which, in turn, meant Patterson was off his game from that very point. He gave up four runs in the first, three on Howard's double with the bases loaded. And when he reluctantly handed Robinson the ball with two outs in the sixth, he had allowed seven runs, matching his high for the year, the final start of a season that, at one point, seemed so promising.

"I just didn't finish strong," Patterson said.

For much of the summer, he looked to be having a breakout year. In 19 of his first 26 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs. On Aug. 4, he reached his zenith, throwing a four-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was so good, the Nationals thought they had a guy that could anchor the front of their rotation for the next several years, and they needed only to find pitchers to fill in behind him.

But four of his final five starts were poor, and his ERA, as low as 2.38 on Aug. 19, rose to 3.13, the highest it has been since July 4. He had three starts in which he tried to win his 10th game, and he couldn't, finishing 9-7, seemingly a disappointing way to end a season once so full of promise.

Yet Patterson is one to accentuate the positives, and he said afterward that he met most of the goals he set before the season. He wanted to pitch 200 innings, and he finished with 1981/3. He wanted a strikeout an inning, and he sat down 185 batters. He wanted an ERA in the low threes, and for much of the season, he seemed certain to beat that.

"I had a good season," he said. "It's hard for me to go home with my head down, that's for sure. A lot of positive things happened for me this year."

The only real positives for the Nationals yesterday came from Ryan Church, who hit his first home runs since he belted two on June 18 at Texas, and Ryan Zimmerman, the rookie third baseman who belted out another hit to keep his average at an even .400, and made the play of the game, diving to his right to snare a smash by David Bell, popping up on the foul line, and throwing across to record the out.

"Total instinct," Zimmerman said. "It's third base. You either get it, or you don't."

Yesterday, the Phillies got it, the Nationals didn't, and it comes down to today, Game 162, to see if this inaugural season comes up a winner.

Jimmy Rollins hits the first pitch of the game for a double that ran his hitting streak to 35 games. The Phillies remained one game behind Houston.