Vazquez's gem caps Braves' series win

Vazquez's gem caps series win

LOS ANGELES -- As Andre Ethier's walk-off homer was sailing over the right-center-field wall on Thursday night, there was reason to wonder if further frustration was in the Braves' immediate future.

But three days later as they packed their bags and boarded a jet that would take them from Southern California back to their Atlanta homes, the Braves were riding the wave of euphoric confidence that developed during what was arguably their most impressive series in recent memory.

After Javier Vazquez produced eight solid innings and carried them to an 8-2 win at Dodger Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the Braves found themselves distanced from Thursday's frustrations and focused on the satisfaction created by the resolve they showed while taking the final three games of this four-game set against the Dodgers.

"I certainly didn't see this coming after Thursday," Chipper Jones said. "But the guys were awesome. The guys played outstanding baseball. We got big hits, made big pitches, made big defensive plays and came in here and played outstanding baseball."

Making these three wins even more impressive was the fact that they were achieved without Jones, who is hopeful that the strained oblique muscle he suffered during Friday's batting practice will improve enough to allow him to play in Tuesday's series opener against the Nationals.

Hours after straining his oblique, Jones watched his teammates overcome a three-run seventh-inning deficit and claim a 12-inning win with the assistance of Garret Anderson's game-tying, two-out single in the ninth. Two days later, there was reason to wonder if this indeed had served as the season's turnaround point.

"We're playing great baseball right now," Vazquez said. "I can't say enough about how the guys played after that kind of frustrating loss that first night. To come back and win these three games was big for a lot of us."

After Vazquez limited the Dodgers to one run and five hits in eight innings, and Matt Diaz produced a three-hit performance in the series finale, the Braves suddenly found themselves 4 1/2 games behind the slumping Phillies in the National League East race and just 3 1/2 games off the NL Wild Card lead.

"We've never lost faith all year long," Diaz said. "We haven't really been scoreboard watching. But we know if we take care of business and finish enough games above .500, we have a great chance to make the playoffs. We think with our pitching staff, we can make that happen."

Diaz's second-inning, opposite-field homer off Eric Stults provided Vazquez a lead that he wouldn't squander. The Braves right-hander, who is 5-0 with a 2.59 ERA in his past seven starts, encountered some bad luck when Manny Ramirez's check-swing double landed along the foul line in shallow left field and gave the Dodgers runners at second and third with nobody out in the fourth inning.

But after Casey Blake delivered a sacrifice fly, Ramirez helped end that threat when he was thrown out attempting to score on Matt Kemp's fly ball that was caught by Yunel Escobar along the foul line in shallow left field.

"It was a great series," manager Bobby Cox said. "We had great pitching and a lot of clutch hitting. They had good pitching, too. We finally found some holes today and pecked away a little bit. Vazquez was just dynamite. We got two great back-to-back performances out of [Kenshin] Kawakami and Vazquez, and we needed it."

Instead of stressing like he had during Friday's comeback victory and again when Saturday's 10-inning win wasn't sealed until Escobar created a game-ending defensive gem, Cox was able to relax during the final stages of this series finale, which was put out of reach with a five-run ninth inning that was highlighted by doubles from Ryan Church and Brian McCann.

"Today was a big win because it was just good to go back to Atlanta having won three out of four games against probably the best team in the National League right now," said Vazquez, who has seen the Braves win each of his past seven starts.

Heading into Friday, the Dodgers possessed the best record in the Majors and were hoping that Thursday's walk-off win would help them move away from a stretch of 12 games that had included just five wins. But three losses later, they found themselves dwelling on the increased frustration that was provided by the Braves' pitching staff.

"Their starters pitched tremendously this series, and they just kept the ball off our barrels and they played good defense," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "Escobar made a heck of a play yesterday to finish the game. Tough series for us, but we'll bounce back."

During this four-game stretch against a team that owns the NL's best batting average and ranks second in runs, the Braves surrendered 13 runs. Three of those came courtesy of Ethier's walk-off shot, and three more came courtesy of Blake's two-out, three-run homer during Friday's fifth inning, which was marred by the confusion plate umpire Eric Cooper created when he made a mechanical error with his right-hand signal on a 3-1 pitch.

While some could say the Dodgers were one pitch away from being swept, they could argue that without Escobar's tremendous defensive save on Saturday night, they were just one pitch away from at least realizing a split.

There was certainly no arguing the reality that this was a great series, and unfortunately for the Dodgers, one that will only prove memorable for the Braves, who exited this 5-2 swing through California with unexpected optimism that was created during the final three days at Dodger Stadium.

"It's pretty phenomenal," Diaz said. "We're pretty happy. To come out West and go [at least] .500 is good for us Georgia boys. We don't like to travel over the Mississippi a lot of times."

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