Their seven-game division lead turned into a six-game deficit in two months, and now the Braves' two-game wild-card lead has been erased in 24 hours.
Bobby Cox tribute day was spoiled Saturday when the Braves lost again to the tuning-up-for-the-playoffs Philadelphia Phillies. This time they were shut out 7-0 before the largest regular-season home crowd in Atlanta Braves history.
And now the offensively challenged Braves are in a precarious position before Sunday's season finale: Win, or risk being shut out of the postseason.
"We've got to suck it up and win a game," Cox said. "We have to [Sunday]."
San Diego beat San Francisco for a second consecutive day Saturday to tie the Braves in the wild-card race. The Braves must win Sunday (a 1:35 p.m. start), or be eliminated from the playoff picture if the Padres beat the Giants (a 4 p.m. start).
"We've made it tough on ourselves, but [we just have to] come back out tomorrow," said third baseman Brooks Conrad, who made a costly throwing error for the second game in a row.
His errant throw in the seventh inning helped grease a four-run Phillies outburst that broke open a scoreless game, and things to degenerated rapidly.
"We need to win, and we've got the right guy [pitcher Tim Hudson] going," Cox said. "And we need to bust open with the bats a little bit. We just didn't hit many balls good today at all."
The Braves mustered one hit in five scoreless innings against Phillies rookie Vance Worley in his second start, spoiling another strong performance by Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson.
After Conrad's throwing error, the Phillies scored four runs (two earned) in the seventh inning.
"Just another terrible throw," Conrad said. "I feel bad about it, but I've just got to play better."
So do the Braves. If they win Sunday and the Padres lose, the Braves are the wild-card champion and would play the Giants in the division series beginning Thursday in San Francisco.
The other scenarios are more complicated. If the Braves and Padres lose Sunday, they would play a one-game playoff Monday in Atlanta to determine the wild card.
If the Braves and Padres both win Sunday, San Diego would play San Francisco in a one-game playoff Monday to decide the West champion, and the loser would play the Braves in a one-game playoff Tuesday in Atlanta to decide the wild card.
The Braves have hit .209 and totaled 29 runs over their past 11 games, including seven losses. They are 0-5 against the Phillies in the past two weeks, and hit .187 and scored nine runs in those five games.
On Sunday, Hudson will face a Phillies aces Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, who both figure to get at least two or three innings of work as a tuneup for their upcoming division series.
Right fielder Jason Heyward put a positive spin on the last-day scenario.
"I feel like it's a good situation, that we can play tomorrow's game and it be meaningful," he said. "We're not one of the teams that's going out to the last game and saying, we don't have a chance to win anything."
Hanson allowed six hits in five scoreless innings before Cox pinch-hit for him with a runner at second base and two out in the bottom of the fifth. Cox said the Braves, desperate to score a run, had to do it.
Pinch-hitter Eric Hinske popped out to end the inning.
"It was the right thing to do," Hanson said. "We've got a runner in scoring position, and it was the right thing to do to get Hinske in there and give him a chance to drive in a run. Obviously I never want to come out of a game, but in that situation I understood."
Hanson got no-decision and is 3-6 over his past 18 starts despite a 2.40 ERA, and things came unraveled soon after he left the game.
Lefty Jonny Venters, who had already pitched the sixth inning, walked Jimmy Rollins to start the seventh. Placido Polanco followed with a grounder that Conrad fielded in front of third base.
Conrad hurried to make an off-balance throw to second base, and the ball sailed behind the bag, allowing pinch-runner Brian Bocock to advance to third.
Chase Utley followed with an RBI single to right field, and one out later Raul Ibanez hit a sharp single through the left side of the infield, just beyond the Conrad's outstretched glove, for a 2-0 lead.
Shane Victorino followed with another RBI single off Venters (4-4), and a crowd of 54,296 seemed as shellshocked as the Braves. The Phillies added a fourth run on a wild pitch by rookie Craig Kimbrel.
"It's definitely tough," said Venters, charged with four runs (two earned), four hits and two walks in 1-1/3 innings. "We were in the game. Tommy pitched his tail off and kept us in the game. And for it to come unwound like that…"
Venters, a rookie workhorse, is 0-4 with a 4.82 ERA in 20 appearances since Aug. 23, after going 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his previous 52 appearances.
"We've made two plays back-to-back nights that caused the floodgates to open up," Cox said. "Venters threw good. It should have been two outs and nobody on in the seventh, and they end up getting four runs."
On Friday, Conrad's two-out throwing error to second base kept alive a five-run Phillies inning that blew open a previously tied game. The Phillies won 11-5.
Conrad was surrounded by reporters and TV cameras Saturday in a quiet clubhouse.
" I feel terrible again today, but we still control our own destiny," he said. "We've got to come out and win tomorrow."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.