The stunning seven-game winning streak that vaulted the Atlanta Braves back into playoff contention finally came to an end.
Now, with newly acquired closer Bob Wickman set to upgrade the bullpen, the Braves look to get back on track and continue their pursuit of a postseason spot when they open a four-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night.
Atlanta is still unlikely to extend its record streak of division titles to 15 this season, but the Braves (45-50) have jumped right back into the playoff race. During its seven-game run, Atlanta became the first team since the 1930 New York Yankees to score at least 10 runs in five straight games before the win streak ended with an 8-3 loss to St. Louis on Wednesday night.
The Braves scored 85 runs during the winning streak but finally ran into a pitcher they couldn’t solve, as Chris Carpenter allowed two runs and five hits over seven innings.
“We had a chance to sweep, but we were going up against Mr. Cy Young,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. “He looked like Cy Young to me.”
Despite the loss, Cox’s team is 15-6 since a 10-game losing streak and has moved within 4 1/2 games of Cincinnati for the wild card.
“We’ve got to just keep playing like we have been this month,” said center fielder Andruw Jones, who has 23 RBIs in 15 games in July to take over the NL lead with 88 RBIs. “We never gave up. We knew things would turn around.”
Wickman should help the bullpen, a major factor in Atlanta’s terrible start, get turned around. The veteran right-hander has converted 15 of 18 save chances this season and tied for the AL lead last year with 45 saves. To get him, Atlanta traded Class A catcher Max Ramirez to Cleveland on Thursday.
“We had a need to bolster our bullpen,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz said.
The Braves will look to get right back in the win column by sending John Smoltz (7-5, 3.41 ERA), winner of three straight starts, to the mound Friday. The right-hander, who has a 1.61 ERA in his last four outings, beat San Diego 11-3 on Saturday with seven scoreless innings of five-hit ball.
Smoltz is 13-12 with four complete games, 11 saves and a 3.52 ERA in 61 games against Philadelphia, including 32 starts. The 61 appearances are his most against any team.
Red-hot Chipper Jones went 2-for-4 on Wednesday to extend his hitting streak to 19 games. He’s 41-for-78 (.526) with eight homers and 24 RBIs during that span.
The Braves won the first five games of their 10-game trip before Wednesday’s defeat, and they’ll be taking on the team they passed to move into second place in the NL East.
The Phillies avoided a third straight loss Wednesday, taking the finale of their series at San Diego 5-4.
“For us, we know we need Bobby in this clubhouse to be a winning ballclub,” said closer Tom Gordon, who earned his 22nd save Wednesday. “But those things are out of our control. We have to continue to play up until that (trade) deadline. Trade rumors are trade rumors. They’re only rumors until something happens.”
The Phillies (43-50) finished their six-game road trip at 3-3. Philadelphia is one game behind Atlanta and 5 1/2 out of the wild card.
“These are important games,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “We can’t afford to fall much further behind.”
The Phillies also have a player who will be looking to extend a long hitting streak Friday, as second baseman Chase Utley went 2-for-4 on Wednesday and has hit in 21 straight games. He’s batting .411 (37-for-90) during that span.
Utley is 6-for-14 (.429) in his career against Smoltz, while Abreu is 16-for-41 (.390) against the Braves right-hander.
Philadelphia’s Cory Lidle (6-1, 5.02) will look to continue his winning ways against Atlanta on Friday. The right-hander is 6-1 with a 4.32 ERA in 10 games— seven starts—against the Braves.
Lidle won his second consecutive start Saturday, throwing 5 2-3 innings and giving up five runs in a 14-6 victory over San Francisco.
The Phillies have won four straight meetings with the Braves and lead the season series 4-1.
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