PITTSBURGH – The Braves’ division title hopes ended Monday night and one of their own former pitching prospects had plenty to do with it.
Rookie left-hander Jeff Locke, a second-round draft pick by the Braves in 2006 and part of the trio they gave to get Nate McLouth, limited the Braves to one run and two hits in six innings of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2-1 win on Monday night at PNC Park, clinching the National League East title for Washington.
The Braves were three games behind the first-place Nationals with only three games to play before Monday, meaning they needed to sweep the Pirates and have the Nationals get swept by Philadelphia to force a division tiebreaker. The Nats later lost 2-0, but by then it didn’t matter.
The Braves dropped the series opener against a skidding Pirates team and are now are assured of playing in Friday’s Wild Card game in Atlanta against St. Louis or the Los Angeles Dodgers, most likely the Cardinals.
“We wanted to go out and win the division,” said retiring third baseman Chipper Jones, who will make his final trip to the postseason. “It’s a little disappointing that we’re going to finish second. But we live on past Wednesday. It was going to be a tough row to hoe anyway – three down with three to play is never the situation you want to be in.
“But it is what it is now. We play Friday. Now our concentration should be getting ourselves ready for Friday night, or Friday afternoon or whatever it is.”
Game time hasn’t been set yet for the Wild Card game at Turner Field, since the American League Wild Card game will also be played that day and the teams plus other logistical factors will figure into the decision as to which games is played in the afternoon and which will get the prime time slot.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Ten days ago we were eight or nine games back, and the Nationals came in and we swept them. We just kept battling. But it was going to be difficult. We just didn’t have any games to play against them, so it would have almost had to be a perfect ending for us, and then the other way [Nationals lose all their games, too].
“It’s something we shoot for and we didn’t get it. We’ve got the Wild Card game. There’s been many teams that go through the wild card to win the World Series. So we’ll take it one game at a time.”
The Braves clinched a wild-card berth a week ago, but were holding out hope to win the East and advance directly to a division series, avoiding the do-or-die scenario of the Wild Card “play-in” game as it’s been referred to by some.
Their odds of winning the division weren’t good before Monday, and the Pirates ended the Braves’ suspense while helping Locke (1-3) collect his first major league win with his best performance in 12 career games, including 10 starts.
The rookie had been 0-6 with a 7.08 ERA in nine previous starts, including 0-3 with a 7.50 ERA in five this season. Locke was traded along with pitcher Charlie Morton and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez in the June 2009 deal for McLouth, who was a bust for Atlanta and is now playing – and playing well – for Baltimore.
Braves lefty Paul Maholm (13-11) was solid – seven innings, five hits, two runs, two walks, eight strikeouts – but got little offensive support, an area that has to be a concern for the Braves as the postseason nears.
“It’s tough to win ballgames with two hits and one run,” Gonzalez said. “Pauly was outstanding. He deserves a better fate, but we just didn’t get the bats going.”
Despite winning seven of their previous eight games and 19 of 26 before Monday, the Braves have scored two or fewer runs in 12 of their past 25 games.
“Lack of offense is always a concern,” Jones said. “But quite honestly you can’t control when you’re seeing it good, when you’re swinging it good. I can’t speak for the rest of the guys; they may feel great. I don’t feel particularly good at the plate. But it’s up to me to fix it before Friday.”
Now that the division race is over and the Braves know they’ll play the Wild Card game, Gonzalez plans to rest some players and hopes that will help revive them and the offense.
“Maybe now we give these guys a day off, maybe play some of the bench and get those guys going,” he said. “They need some at-bats too. You don’t want to give [regulars] three days off before our next game Friday, but maybe we can get a couple of guys an at-bat here or there and get them out of the game.”
Locke had five walks, including two apiece in the second and third innings. But the Braves didn’t make him pay much for those free passes. After consecutive walks in the second, Brian McCann grounded into an inning-ending double play.
The Braves took a 1-0 lead with a two-out rally in the third inning, getting a Michael Bourn single and Martin Prado walk before Jason Heyward singled up the middle to drive in a run. Jones walked to load the bases before Freddie Freeman grounded out to end the inning.
“We had some opportunities,” Gonzalez said. “We had, what, first and second with one out, and Mac rolled into a double play. And bases loaded with two out and Freeman rolled over one. It’s hard to win ballgames with two hits and one run.”
The Pirates answered quickly with a run in the bottom of the inning when Starling Marte hit a leadoff triple that bounced down the left-field line and caromed out of the corner past left-field Reed Johnson. Chas d’Arnaud followed with a grounder that drove in the tying run.
Marte put the Pirates ahead with his leadoff homer in the fifth inning, only the second homer off Maholm in his past six starts after he allowed six homers in five August starts.
“I made a couple of bad pitches to Marte and he hit a [triple] and the home run, and the one to Cutch [McCutchen] wasn’t where I wanted it.” said Maholm, who spent his first seven seasons in the majors with Pittsburgh. “For the most part I did what I wanted. Obviously I’d rather not give up the two runs, but you go seven and give up two, most of the time you’re going to come out pretty good.”