Braves grab early lead, never look back

Braves grab lead, never look back

MIAMI -- Whenever it's seemed appropriate to close the casket on their postseason hopes, the Braves have managed to prove they still have life. But even when they have seemingly taken a step in the right direction, they've consistently encountered another obstacle.

Actually, while claiming what should have been an enjoyable 9-4 win over the Marlins at Dolphin Stadium on Wednesday night, the Braves encountered two obstacles that could hinder any legitimate chance for them to get back into postseason contention.

Instead of enjoying Gregor Blanco's career-best, four-hit night and the fact that they claimed two wins in this three-game series against the Marlins, the Braves instead found themselves worrying about the health of Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson.

Jones exited in the fourth inning with a strained left hamstring, an injury that leaves him questionable for this weekend's series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. As for Hudson, he allowed three hits over six scoreless innings before exiting with tightness just below his right elbow.

"We'll see how Chipper is," manager Bobby Cox said. "Huddy, I think, will be fine."

Though Hudson expects to make his next scheduled start, Jones is hoping to avoid his first trip to the disabled list this season. He owns a Major League-best .369 batting average, and the Braves could certainly use his services against the Phillies.

"He is one of the best hitters in the game, and if you lose a guy like that, everybody has to step up their game," said catcher Brian McCann, who contributed a seventh-inning RBI single in Wednesday's victory.

By taking two games from the Marlins, the Braves moved back to within six games of the lead in the National League East race, which is being co-led by the Phillies and Mets.

"We would have liked perfection," McCann said, "but we'll take two out of three against [the Marlins]. That lineup they have is awesome."

For the most part, the Braves' pitching staff, which took a beating on Saturday and Sunday against the Nationals, stepped up big during this series. They surrendered two hits on Monday night and had a shutout working on Wednesday before Buddy Carlyle resumed his recent struggles and surrendered four ninth-inning runs.

By that time, Blanco, who also had a career-high three RBIs, and Yunel Escobar, who hit a pair of RBI doubles, had already helped the Braves gain a commanding lead and to forget about the fact that they were gaining this victory while potentially losing their top pitcher and top hitter because of injuries.

Of course, given all of the injury-related problems they've encountered this season, this seemed to be a fitting turn of events for the Braves.

"I don't think you should look at it that way," said Jones, who sustained his injury while attempting to beat out a two-out grounder in the fourth inning. "We won a series within our division. We would have won tonight's game without me."

Hudson, who is 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 13 career starts against the Marlins, set the tone while keeping the powerful Marlins lineup relatively quiet. He pitched around Hanley Ramirez's first-inning RBI double and was unharmed after Mike Jacobs doubled with two outs in the fourth inning.

"Huddy is our ace, and he went out and pitched like it," said McCann, who added that the velocity and action of Hudson's pitches provided no indication that he was battling any sort of arm discomfort.

Hudson believes that some of the discomfort, which worsened during the fifth and sixth innings, was a product of the fact that he was throwing more split-finger fastballs than he has in the past. At the same time, he was finding success with his slider and sinker.

"It's a lot of fun pitching when you feel like you've got all of your pitches working," Hudson said.

Hudson aided his cause by beginning his team's two-run third inning with a single off Ricky Nolasco. This put him in position to score on an RBI double by Escobar, who was playing his second game after missing seven because of a strained left shoulder.

Blanco's bunt single aided the third inning, and his fourth-inning RBI single only prolonged his productive evening. When he added a two-run triple in the eighth, the rookie outfielder was able to feel better about the extra time he had spent this week with hitting coach Terry Pendleton.

"That felt awesome," Blanco said. "I adjusted my feet a little bit, and everything felt great."

Coincidentally, the three-run fourth inning off Nolasco, who is 1-4 with a 5.44 ERA in seven career starts against the Braves, began with consecutive doubles by Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson.

After the Braves loaded the bases with nobody out in the fourth inning of Tuesday's loss to the Marlins, Francoeur and Johnson recorded consecutive strikeouts and erased any potential momentum.

But like they immediately rebounded from Sunday's 15-6 loss to the Nationals, the Braves didn't allow the fact that they recorded one hit on Tuesday prevent them from achieving their goal of winning this three-game series against one of the three teams that stand between them and the NL East lead.

"This team isn't going to give up," Jones said. "The older guys and Bobby aren't going to let that happen. "The fact that there have been some games where we haven't played well doesn't mean we're not going to go out there and play hard every night."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.