PHILADELPHIA -- Derek Lowe has already guaranteed that this September will not be as impressive as the one he enjoyed last year. The Braves can only hope that the remainder of the month proves to be more encouraging for their veteran pitcher.
Instead of building the confidence he had gained over the past couple of weeks, Lowe took a step back and helped the Phillies take a step closer to a fifth consecutive division title, as they rode Cliff Lee's talented left arm to a 9-0 win on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park.
"They dominated every aspect of the game," Lowe said. "Sometimes you have to give other people credit, too. It's not always that you pitched or hit poorly. Sometimes it's just that you got outplayed, and that's what happened."
Lowe's line -- five innings, eight hits and seven runs, five of them earned -- seems slightly worse than his effort. Though he has only himself to blame for a three-run fifth inning that gave the Phillies a wide cushion, a few costly ground balls could have been fielded by Martin Prado and Alex Gonzalez in the first four innings.
As for Lee, he might have been even better than his line suggests, as he rolled toward a five-hit shutout. The veteran left-hander surrendered a first-inning single to Brian McCann and then just two more infield singles -- by Matt Diaz and Dan Uggla -- over the next six innings. He retired 16 straight at one point and needed just 100 pitches to win his seventh consecutive start.
"We just need to put this one behind us," center fielder Michael Bourn said. "It's a blowout, and those don't really hurt as bad as the ones that are close. It's going to happen sometimes. They had their man going tonight, and he was on. But we've still got two more games in this series."
Paced by Lee's sixth shutout of the season and 11th of his career, the Phillies moved 8 1/2 games in front of the Braves in the National League East race.
With just 22 games left in the season, the Braves should focus more on the 8 1/2-game lead they have in the NL Wild Card chase. Considering they have lost five of their past eight games, they should feel fortunate to have this kind of cushion entering the regular season's final weeks.
In winning six of the first 11 games of the season series, the Braves outscored the Phillies, 36-35. While dropping the past two games against Philadelphia, Atlanta has been outscored, 23-1.
"It's one game, and we just need to keep playing and keep trying to win series and look forward," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You've got to put your nose down and keep plugging away."
Lee had been 0-3 with a 5.60 ERA in the five career starts he made for the Phillies against the Braves. The only offensive support he received in his previous two starts against Atlanta came courtesy of the solo homer he hit off Tommy Hanson on July 9.
One of those losses was recorded on May 6, when he notched 16 strikeouts in seven innings but watched Lowe hold the Phillies hitless through the first six innings.
It's safe to say that this game proved to be a little more memorable for Lee.
"I think the more he pitches in this league, he learns the hitters a lot better," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think that helps him. Atlanta has some good fastball hitters, and he knows when to go get a good breaking ball on them. The more he pitches in the league, the better he should become."
Lee pitched with a lead throughout his 100-pitch effort. After allowing consecutive one-out singles in the first inning, Lowe fell behind Ryan Howard and walked him to load the bases. That set the stage for Hunter Pence, who laced a two-run single just past the outstretched arms of Prado at third base.
After Lowe walked John Mayberry Jr. to start the bottom of the fourth, Gonzalez fumbled a Carlos Ruiz grounder. The next two batters were retired, but Shane Victorino then recorded a two-run single on a tough grounder that Prado seemed to misjudge.
"When it doesn't go good for him, it seems like we don't make a play or they hit a ball we can't reach," Fredi Gonzalez said.
Before ending his rough evening, Lowe made his own costly mistakes in the fifth inning. Chase Utley's one-out triple provided a spark, and Pence fueled the fire with a two-run double. Ruiz capped the inning with a two-run single.
"There were definitely times where you felt like you could have gotten out of the inning," Lowe said. "But Cliff Lee was some kind of special. I knew once we got down, even 2-0 in the first inning, with the way he pitched in August, I had to pretty much shut it down from there. It just seemed like it didn't happen."
With Jair Jurrjens (right knee) and Hanson (right shoulder) battling injuries that could sideline them through at least the first round of the playoffs, the Braves were hoping Lowe could provide the confidence he did last year, when he turned things around while going 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in September.
He still has time, but this outing creates reason to wonder if he can reverse his fortunes again.
"You feel confident every time out," Lowe said. "I believe I'm going to pitch well every time out. This hasn't been the greatest of years. We'll just keep going."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.