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Braves eliminated from playoff contention
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    PHILADELPHIA — When Jimmy Rollins boldly predicted the Phillies would win the NL East, he didn’t expect it would take Philadelphia this long to reach first place.
    After 159 games, the Phillies are finally atop the division standings — albeit tied with the free-falling New York Mets.
    Ryan Howard hit his 44th homer, Pat Burrell also connected and the Phillies roughed up John Smoltz, before hanging on for a 6-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Thursday night.
    The collapsing Mets lost 3-0 to St. Louis to drop into a tie with Philadelphia (87-72) for first place. Both teams have three games left. The Phillies host Washington, which is coming off a three-game sweep at Shea Stadium. The Mets host Florida.
    Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira hit consecutive homers for the Braves, who were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
    While the Phillies celebrated their 11th win in 14 games, a crowd of 40,589 cheered wildly and waved their white-and-red ‘‘Fightin’ Phils’’ towels.
    For a change, there were no ‘‘E-A-G-L-E-S’’ chants at Citizens Bank Park.
    Kyle Kendrick (10-4) allowed three runs and six hits in six innings. Tom Gordon escaped a jam in the seventh, J.C. Romero pitches a scoreless eighth and Brett Myers allowed a leadoff homer to Jeff Francouer in the ninth before getting three outs for his 21st save in 24 chances.
    The Phillies hadn’t spent a day in first place all season, and were seven games behind the Mets after losing to Colorado on Sept. 12. They came in one game behind San Diego in the wild-card standings. The Padres played at Milwaukee.
    After falling short in the final weekend the last two seasons, the Phillies could be heading to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Meanwhile, Atlanta will be going home for the second straight year after winning an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles.
    The Braves would be knocked out of the wild-card chase if San Diego wins.
    Desperate to keep their faint playoff hopes alive, the Braves got a poor performance from an unlikely source. Smoltz (14-8) gave up six runs — five earned — and seven hits, striking out eight in four innings. It was his shortest outing since going 3 1-3 innings on May 29, and only the fourth time in 32 starts he allowed more than three earned runs.
    The Braves sliced Philly’s lead in half when Jones hit an opposite-field, two-run homer and Teixeira followed with a solo shot to cut it to 6-3 in the sixth.
    The Phillies scored four times before Smoltz recorded an out. Rollins hit Smoltz’s first pitch up the middle for a single and Shane Victorino put down a perfect bunt on the next offering. Smoltz didn’t have a chance to get the speedy Victorino, but threw anyway and the ball ended up down the right field line. Rollins scored and Victorino went to third.
    Two pitches in, the Phillies led 1-0.
    Chase Utley followed with a grounder to first baseman Teixeira. The normally sure-handed Teixeira booted it for an error, allowing Victorino to score.
    Howard then turned on an inside pitch and lined it into the right-field seats to make it 4-0.
    In his next at-bat, Howard swung at and missed a down-and-away splitter for his 196th strikeout to set the single-season major league record. He broke the mark established in 2004 by Adam Dunn of the Cincinnati Reds.
    Last season’s NL MVP, Howard has 130 RBIs. He struck out again in the fifth.
    After Howard fanned, Aaron Rowand doubled. Burrell then hit a towering drive that just cleared the wall in left-center for his 30th homer, giving the Phillies a 6-0 lead.
Notes: Burrell was 2-for-26 with 14 strikeouts lifetime against Smoltz before he homered. He moved into fifth-place on the Phillies’ all-time list with his 218th career homer, passing Cy Williams. ... Rollins needs two more at-bats to set the single-season major league record. Willie Wilson had 705 at-bats for Kansas City in 1980. ... Smoltz hasn’t beaten the Phillies since July 1, 2005. ... Teixeira homered in each of the three games in Philly.