WILLIAMSPORT >> There is no smoke machine in the home clubhouse at Bowman Field, no ping-pong table, no disco ball or arrangement of leather furniture. There is, though, a big-screen TV, not that the Phillies seemed entertained.

They’d just spent much of Sunday morning across town, mingling with participants in the Little League World Series, exchanging caps and stories, taking selfies. It was half the reason they and the Mets were detoured to the middle of Pennsylvania on a day when there should have been an important National League East game in Citizens Bank Park. The other half of the reason was to play a game. And on that TV in their room, a few hours before they would play for first place in the division, there was a cut-in to Atlanta, where the Braves were continuing their cliff dive. That meant the Phillies would play for first place by night’s end. Yet there was barely a head turned to the TV.

“The moment we step out on the field for BP, it’s going to start to turn toward business,” Gabe Kapler would proclaim before an 8-2 loss. “And then when game-time rolls around, I can assure you our guys are still going to be having fun like we always do, but we are going to be taking this responsibility very seriously.”

So serious were the Phillies that by the second inning, Nick Pivetta had allowed six hits, the Mets were ahead by four and the capacity crowd of Little League World Series fans didn’t even bother to taunt them with a goofy Eagles chant. Then, it worsened, as it might have expected to worsen on a rare day when both teams flew to a city, then played a few hours later.

“Those guys on that side were out of their routine too, so it was an even playing field for everybody,” Pivetta said. “So I don’t think that’s a good excuse for me personally. I just have to be better in those situations.”

The Phillies could contend in their division for the next half-dozen years. John Middleton has the money and Bryce Harper will be a free agent and all the rest. But believe Harper is a Phillie only when he drops the ceremonial first puck at a Flyers game, then sneaks out between the first and second period. Even then, no matter how much cash they spend or experience they gain, there is no guarantee that the Phillies’ path to first place will ever be as smooth as it had been in the last six days.

Whether the Phillies were watching or not Sunday, the Braves would lose for the fourth consecutive time, all at home, to the Colorado Rockies. Saturday, Colorado scored three in the ninth and two in the 10th. Thursday, they scored three in the ninth. Yet through that utter disaster of a series, the Braves would end the weekend in first place, for one reason: The Phillies.

Since taking the NL East lead by 2.5 games July 26, Kapler’s team has too often been stricken by stage fright. The Phils dropped three straight in Cincinnati, which had to fire one manager already this season. They played three in San Diego against the depressed Padres, and they lost two. Still, they were close to the division lead. More, they were coming home (or close to home) for seven. Yet from that extravaganza, they achieved, among other things, two hits in one game, a 20-run loss, and a defeat on a day when Odubel Herrera made a baserunning error. Then there was Sunday, when they faced Jason Vergas, who had been 2-8 with an 8.10 ERA, and gave a night-long clinic on how not to hit, pitch or throw.

“We know we haven’t played as well as we can and we’re still a half-game out of first place,” Rhys Hoskins said. “So it’s hard to be too frustrated. It could be worse. We could not be in striking distance. So it’s frustrating, yeah. But at the same time, we can find some positive in still only being a half-game out.”

So out of contention were the Mets around the deadline that they didn’t mind sending Asdrubal Cabrera to the Phillies for some minor-league pitcher. A neighborly gesture, that. Yet there they were winning three of five against the Phils in Pennsylvania, including that nationally televised pip in a minor-league park Sunday.

Though Little League Nation will leave Williamsport convinced that the Mets are baseball royalty, New York quit the division race long ago. And so did the Marlins, not that they wouldn’t thump the Nats by 11 Sunday in Washington. As for the Phillies, they have been caught in a three-team race that some team (by rule) must win.

“Every major-league team is a good major-league team,” Kapler said. “Despite their record, they can always beat you on any given night. And tonight, Vargas was pitching very, very well. And if we’re not swinging the bats, we’re susceptible.

“We have to be prepared every single night to play. That’s our job.”

They didn’t seem prepared Sunday, a day when they were happy to enjoy the bonding with ticket-buyers of the future. Some ideas sound good. But the Phillies needed to surrender a home game for that like they needed to recall Mark Leiter Jr. again. For their good deed, among other reasons, they were unable to make a weekend matter as the Braves were being stunned at home and the Nationals were losing by double figures.

Of course, Hoskins did get to meet Big Al. Quick, activate the nearest smoke machine and celebrate.

Contact Jack McCaffery @jmccaffery@21st-centurymedia.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery

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