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10/01/09 11:46 PM EST

Lee ready after final NLDS tuneup

Phillies fall one game back in race for NL's best record

PHILADELPHIA -- The next time Cliff Lee pitches, he will be in the postseason for the first time in his career.

The veteran lefty feels he is ready.

Lee allowed seven hits, four runs (three earned) and one walk and struck out six in 5 2/3 innings Thursday in a 5-3 loss to the Astros at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies, who clinched their third consecutive National League East championship Wednesday, needed a victory to pull into a tie with the Dodgers for the best record in the NL as they pursue home-field advantage through the NL Division Series and NL Championship Series.

But just as important to Philadelphia as home-field advantage is getting everybody healthy and ready for the playoffs.

Division Series
Gm. 1PHI 5, COL 1WrapVideo
Gm. 2COL 5, PHI 4WrapVideo
Gm. 3PHI 6, COL 5WrapVideo
Gm. 4PHI 5, COL 4WrapVideo

Lee is 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA in 12 starts with the Phillies, but is 2-4 with a 6.13 ERA in his past seven. He went 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in his first five.

Lee allowed two runs in the first inning, when Lance Berkman hit a 3-2 cutter to score a couple of runners -- one of which reached on catcher's interference -- and two runs in the sixth inning, when Miguel Tejada hit a two-run homer to left-center field.

In between Berkman and Tejada, Lee retired 13 of 16 batters. He threw just 90 pitches, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said they wanted to limit Lee because he has thrown 231 2/3 innings this season.

"After [Berkman's double], I thought I settled in and threw well through the fifth," Lee said. "I had a hard time finding the zone for a little while in the sixth."

The Phillies have not said if Lee will pitch Game 1 or 2 of the NLDS next week. Left-hander Cole Hamels is scheduled to pitch Saturday. The rotation could set up to have Lee pitch in Game 1 on Wednesday and Hamels in Game 2 on Thursday against an opponent to be determined, although if the standings hold, it would be the Rockies.

The Phillies are hoping to get the Lee who dominated in his first five starts, regardless of when he pitches.

"I thought he was real close to that same form," said catcher Paul Bako, who has caught nine of Lee's 12 starts. "Yeah, he was way better today, even when he was in Atlanta [on Sept. 20] and pitched pretty good before the rain. ... He was throwing the ball real, real good. He had good stuff. He had good command. I liked what I saw for sure."

But the loss could cost Philadelphia home-field advantage in the NLCS, if the Phillies and Dodgers advance past the Division Series. The Dodgers have the best record in the league at 93-66. The Phils are second at 92-67 and the Cardinals are third at 91-68. The Rockies have clinched at least the NL Wild Card at 91-68. The top two division winners get home-field advantage in the NLDS. The division winner with the best record gets home-field advantage in the NLCS.

The Dodgers, Phillies, Cardinals and Rockies have three games to play. Philadelphia must finish a game ahead of Los Angeles to get home-field advantage in both rounds because it went 3-4 against the Dodgers this season, just like the Cardinals must finish a game ahead of the Phillies because they went 1-4 against them.

In other words, Philly have to make up two games on Los Angeles in three games.

That will be tough.

"We want to win every game," Lee said. "We're already in the playoffs, but we still want to win games. We want to guarantee home-field advantage in the playoffs. That's a big difference. Yeah, you want to feel good about yourself and where you're at going into the playoffs."

The Phils had an opportunity to feel good Thursday, despite the fact Manuel rested Chase Utley and Shane Victorino. Astros right-hander Felipe Paulino was 2-11 with a 6.51 ERA entering the game. He had lost his past seven games, the most consecutive losses for a Houston pitcher since Jose Lima lost 13 consecutive games in 2000.

Ben Francisco hit a leadoff double in the first inning, but did not score.

It was a sign of things to come.

The Phillies stranded 15 runners and hit just 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position. They scored their first run in the fifth when Francisco, who went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a walk, hit a leadoff double and scored on Raul Ibanez's bases-loaded infield single. They did not score again until the ninth, when Pedro Feliz hit a two-out double to right-center field to score Matt Stairs and Jayson Werth.

Pinch-hitter Andy Tracy made things interesting when he singled to put runners at the corners, but Miguel Cairo lined out to center fielder Michael Bourn to end the game.

The Phillies open a three-game series Friday against the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. Then it's the playoffs.

"I'm excited. I'm ready to see what it's all about on the field," Lee said. "It's a whole different deal."

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