PITTSBURGH -- Fredi Gonzalez didn't really expect the Atlanta Braves to catch the Washington Nationals. Not after trailing the front-running and rarely faltering Nationals all summer and into the fall.
Still, the Braves manager took pride in the way his team stubbornly hung in there. And while Atlanta's chase for the National League East title officially ended with a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night, Gonzalez was hardly disappointed.A year after a stunning September collapse kept them out of the postseason, the Braves will host the wild-card game on Friday. Last time Gonzalez checked, you didn't need to clinch a division title to win a World Series."It's something we shoot for, the division," Gonzalez said. "We didn't get it, but we've got the wild card game and you know there's been many, many teams that go through the wild card to win the World Series."Like say, St. Louis a year ago, a spot the Cardinals grabbed when Atlanta dropped its last five games. It's a memory that stung during a long offseason, one the Braves can put to rest now.Still, the Braves will have to survive the one-game playoff to make sure their second playoff appearance in eight years isn't just a cameo. Atlanta couldn't get much going against the Pirates, who rode youngsters Jeff Locke and Starling Marte to one of their more satisfying wins in the last six weeks.Locke (1-3) scattered two hits over six innings to pick up his first major league win and Marte tripled, homered and scored both runs as Pittsburgh relished the role of mild spoiler. Jared Hughes worked the ninth to earn his second save."It just feels good to win, after everything this team has been through this year, especially this last little while," Locke said.This series looked like an important one a month ago when the Pirates were one of baseball's biggest surprises. A 7-21 September dropped Pittsburgh from playoff contender to a record 20th straight losing season.Instead, the Pirates are pointing toward next year while the Braves are pointing toward the end of the week, even if their postseason will start a little earlier than hoped."It's a little disappointing we're going to finish second," said Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones. "But we live on past Wednesday."Paul Maholm (13-11) gave up two runs on five hits in seven innings while losing to his former team for the first time, striking out eight and walking three."For the most part I did mostly what I wanted," Maholm said. "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."Just not this time.Locke has spent the last month auditioning for a spot in Pittsburgh's rotation next spring, his miserable results falling in lock-step with the team's freefall through the standings. The 24-year-old left-hander came in winless in his previous five starts and -- even worse -- the Pirates had lost every game this season in which he made an appearance.Though he struggled at times with his command, issuing five walks, Locke managed to keep the hottest team in the National League in check. Atlanta's only run came on Jason Heyward's RBI single in the third but the Braves left the bases loaded when Freddie Freeman grounded out to third to end the inning.Getting out of the jam largely unscathed was a major step for Locke, who had been prone to allowing one bad inning undo an otherwise decent outing."I think there was a couple things out there tonight that really helped his growth," said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle. "Getting through the third and only giving up one run was one of them."Atlanta's lead didn't last long. Marte tripled to lead off the third and scored Chase d'Arnaud's grounder to second.Marte, part of a young core the Pirates plan to build around, led off the fifth with a drive over the 399-foot sign in center field to give Pittsburgh the lead. The bullpen, even with closer Joel Hanrahan unavailable after a rare blown save on Sunday, made it stand up.The Braves went quietly until the ninth, when Freeman reached on an error with one out. Reed Johnson lined to left and Brian McCann grounded out to Hughes that led to cheers in two cities about 250 miles apart."It is what it is now," Jones said. "We play Friday and all our concentration should be on getting ourselves ready for Friday."
The Braves scratched 2B Dan Uggla about an hour before the game as a precautionary measure due to swelling in the knuckle on his right index finger. Uggla injured the hand when the Braves celebrated clinching a playoff spot last week. Martin Prado started in Uggla's place, with Johnson replacing Prado in the outfield ... Gonzalez said there are no plans to change the pitching rotation through the final two games of the season even with Atlanta locked into the wild card ... The series continues on Tuesday, with Atlanta's Tommy Hanson (13-9, 4.38) facing Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia (11-11, 4.33) ... The Pirates honored Jones before the game by giving him a specially branded base that will be used during the series and donating $5,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
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