ATLANTA - A dominant late-September performance by Charlie Morton left the Atlanta Braves hoping it was a preview of October postseason starts to come.
Morton threw seven scoreless innings, Jorge Soler hit a two-run single and the Braves escaped a ninth-inning jam to beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 on Tuesday night and move closer to their fourth consecutive NL East title.
"It’s exactly why we hired him, pretty much," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "The moment doesn’t get too big, I know that, for him."
Atlanta reduced its magic number to three games in the division race and extended its lead to 3 1/2 games over the second-place Phillies, who no longer control their fate with five games left. The loss eliminated Philadelphia from contention for an NL wild card.
"We have to win out," Phillies first baseman Brad Miller said. "I think it’s cut and dried."
Even winning out may not be enough for Philadelphia, which still needs the New York Mets to beat the Braves in the final regular-season series.
"You’ve got to keep grinding," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "You’ve got to find a way to win tomorrow and then you go from there. ... Tomorrow is not out of our hands, and that’s what we need to focus on."
Will Smith survived a wild ninth inning, allowing an unearned run, for his 36th save in 42 chances.
Smith walked Bryce Harper leading off and Guillermo Heredia, inserted in the game for his defense in the inning, chased down J.T. Realmuto’s liner to center. Pinch-hitter Matt Vierling’s liner to left field glanced off the glove of Edwin Rosario for a two-base error, putting runners on second and third.
Andrew McCutchen loaded the bases with an intentional walk, Didi Gregorius had a sacrifice fly and, with runners at the corners, Smith fell behind Freddy Galvis 3-0. Smith evened the count, Galvis fouled off two pitches and then swung past a fastball.
"We almost pulled it out," said Zack Wheeler (14-10) was almost as impressive as Morton, allowing two runs and four hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings. "We just couldn’t come through in the clutch right here. We’re battling. We never stop. That’s all you can ask."
Morton (14-6) gave up singles to his first two batters and gave up only one more hit. He allowed only three hits with 10 strikeouts and two walks in seven innings.
"The guys can taste it a little, knowing where we are," said the 37-year-old Morton, who began his career with Atlanta before returning with a $15 million, one-year deal. He has signed a $20 million contract for 2022 with a club option for 2023.
"We’re in a really good spot," Morton said. "We’re playing games that everybody wants to play down the stretch."
Héctor Neris stranded two runners in the eighth. Galvis misplayed Soler’s grounder at third base for an error before Neris walked Freddie Freeman, who was forced on Ozzie Albies’ grounder. Neris struck out Austin Riley to end the inning.
Phillies RHP Connor Brogdon (strained right groin) was activated from the 10-day injured list. Brogdon adds depth to the bullpen as RHP Sam Coonrod (thumb infection) has not pitched since Sept. 22. ... The team recalled INF Alec Brohm from Triple-A Lehigh Valley and optioned RHP Ramón Rosso and IF Luke Williams to Lehigh Valley. Manager Joe Girardi said Brohm, who hit only .245 with 16 errors in 111 games with Philadelphia before his demotion, will serve as a pinch-hitter and bench depth.
Wheeler faltered in the third inning. Travis d’Arnaud led off with a double to the left-field corner and moved to third on Dansby Swanson’s single up the middle. Morton’s two-strike sacrifice moved Swanson to second before Soler’s sharp single to left drove in both runners.
Soler has been an important addition to the lineup since he was acquired from Kansas City on July 30. Most recently he has filled in as the leadoff hitter.
"It’s not a short sample anymore," Snitker said. "He’s been doing this ever since he’s been here. He’s been so good for us, so good."
Phillies RHP Aaron Nola (9-8, 4.64 ERA) will face Braves LHP Max Fried (13-7, 3.12) in Wednesday night’s second game of the series. Fried was 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in two starts against the Phillies this season. Nola was 1-1 with a 4.44 ERA in four starts against Atlanta.