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The Early Lead
Posted at 10:36 AM ET, 09/28/2011

Braves, Cardinals all tied up in NL wild-card standings on final night of regular season

Clinging to a one-game lead atop the National League wild-card standings, the Atlanta Braves put the ball in the hand of veteran starter Derek Lowe on Tuesday night, hoping to clinch an elusive postseason berth with a win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Things look bleak for Derek Lowe and the Atlanta Braves, who have watched their wild-card race lead evaporate. (Curtis Compton - AP)

What they got instead was one of their most uninspired, ugly efforts of their recent tailspin and a 7-1 defeat.

Still, the forlorn Braves left the dugout with the hope that Houston could break a 5-5 tie with the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals to preserve their one-game cushion. But presented with an opportunity to seize a share of the wild-card lead, the Cardinals came through with a 13-6 victory.

To understand the scope of Atlanta’s misery, consider this: entering Tuesday night’s game the Braves had held sole possession of the NL wild card since June 20. As recently as Sept. 6, the Braves led the race by 8 1/2 games, but since then they’ve watched that lead slip slide away with each loss. Now it all comes down to one night.

“It’s like living out a bad dream,” Braves veteran Chipper Jones said.

Lowe’s performance — 4 innings pitched, 6 hits, 5 earned runs, 2 strikeouts — is a microcosm of a dismal month for Atlanta in which their injury-plagued starting rotation has failed them.

Generally considered a reliable middle- to back-end of the rotation veteran, Lowe went 0-5 in September, giving up 23 runs in 23 2/3 innings and only twice lasting six innings. But the reeling Braves offense did him no favors during that stretch, managing just 1.2 runs in his starts.

“When you’re 9-17 with a (5.05) ERA, come on, there’s really nothing you can say to sugarcoat it,” Lowe said. “I’m man enough to say I’ve had a terrible year. But we’ve still got a chance. Our best pitcher is going tomorrow. This isn’t about me. This is about this organization and how much hard work these guys have put in this season.”


Here come the Redbirds... (David J. Phillip - AP)
That “best pitcher” is Tim Hudson, the closest thing to a rock in Atlanta’s rotation this season. He hasn’t been exceptional, but he’s given the Braves their best chance to win this month, posting a 3-2 record and going at least six innings in each of his appearances. Philadelphia will counter with innings-eater Joe Blanton — a late substitution for Cole Hamels.

In Houston, St. Louis turns to Chris Carpenter against Brett Myers and the worst team in baseball, who coughed up a 5-0 lead on Tuesday night while trying to play spoiler.

The Braves are 9-17 this month and, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, they know they must win on Wednesday night and hope the Astros can do them a favor. If the two teams finish tied, they’ll travel to St. Louis for a one-game playoff on Thursday night that could pit the Redbirds’ Kyle Lohse against Atlanta youngster Brandon Beachy.

“It is what it is,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We’ve played 161 games and it comes down to one. We’ve done it to ourselves. No excuses there. We’ve got to go get it tomorrow.”

By  |  10:36 AM ET, 09/28/2011

 
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