No need to break out the bubbly on Wednesday night, but the Braves clinched home-field advantage in a potential wild card game and continued trying to close the gap on the Nationals.
The Braves backed up their playoff-berth clinching victory in the series opener with a 3-0 win Wednesday night over the Marlins. After the Cardinals lost in Houston, the Braves were assured of finishing as the top National League wild card team and would host a one-game playoff on Oct. 5.
But for Paul Maholm and the Braves, their focus was trying to keep pace with the Nationals, who won Wednesday and maintained a four-game lead in the NL East with seven games to play.
Maholm dominated the Marlins with 6 2/3 innings of shutout work in what he treated as a test run for the playoffs.
“Obviously I’ve never been in this position in my career,” said Maholm, who played his first seven seasons with the Pirates and first four months this season with the Cubs. “I tried to do as much as I could to treat it like a playoff game, to where I’m going to go out there and I’m going to win the game and try and set the tone. The defense made some plays and obviously putting up some runs helps.”
Martin Prado, the instigator of the walk-off dirt bath Tuesday night after Freddie Freeman’s heroics, was due for a little celebration of his own. He drove in the Braves’ first two runs on a home run and an RBI single.
He gave Maholm a 1-0 lead with a first inning solo shot off Josh Johnson which gave Maholm time to find a rhythm. He was pitching on seven day’s rest since the Braves flip-flopped him with Kris Medlen so that Medlen could pitch in a potential wild card playoff.
“Going out for the third I felt like I found my rhythm and was able to pretty much throw every pitch for a strike,” Maholm said.
The result was some of his finest work as a Brave since his complete game shutout in New York on Aug. 10. He gave up only five hits – all singles – walked none and struck out six. He retired 13 in a row before giving up a single to Gil Velazquez with two outs in the seventh. It was on his 104th pitch so manager Fredi Gonzalez came for the ball.
Chad Durbin, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel finished off the Marlins from there. Kimbrel picked up his 40th save to match Jason Motte for the National League lead. He did it by striking out four batters, after one reached on a wild pitch. The feat was something only four Braves have done since 1977, along with Mark Wohlers (1995), Paul Assenmacher (1989) and Phil Niekro (1977).
By winning the first two against the Marlins, the Braves assured themselves of a fourth consecutive series victory since getting swept in Milwaukee. The surging Braves have won nine of their past 11 to move to 16-7 in September.
In addition to hitting his 10th home run of the season, Prado took advantage of Jose Constanza’s speed to drive in his second run when Constanza scored from second on his single to shallow right field. Constanza went barreling head first into home plate and nearly went face-first into the dirt. But it was a fitting RBI for Prado, who said he smothered Freeman with dirt after his walk-off Tuesday because he didn’t have any shaving cream handy.
“When we went back out there and I saw (Constanza) had dirt (on his shoulder),” Prado said. “I was like ‘You dove like (to) a bag?’…But that’s the way we’re playing. Everybody is contributing. Everybody is playing hard, and that’s all that matters.”
The Braves drew four walks in the first three innings against Johnson – one on them intentional – but cashed in only one of them after both Dan Uggla and Brian McCann struck out with the bases loaded in the third inning. But Uggla and McCann teamed up for an improbable double steal in the sixth that got the Braves another run on a suicide squeeze play.
Maholm couldn’t get his bat on a pitch up and away but the ball bounced off catcher John Buck’s glove as a charging Uggla scored from third. Uggla was credited with a steal of home, the Braves’ first since Jason Heyward did it on July 28, 2010.
Heyward reached a milestone of his own. He stole second base in the first inning to become the Braves first 20-steal 20-home run man since Andruw Jones in 2000.