With the way the Atlanta Braves are hitting these days, a heavy burden falls on the pitching staff to shut down the opposition.
Atlanta’s pitchers had been up to the task against the Houston Astros this week - until the ninth inning of the second game of the series.
Another low-scoring affair could be in order Thursday night when veteran stalwarts Derek Lowe(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes) match up in Houston with the Braves seeking their first series win in more than two weeks.
Since taking two of three from Florida from Aug. 21-23, Atlanta has dropped three series and tied another, going 5-10 and damaging its playoff hopes in the process. The Braves (71-68) are 8 1/2 games behind Colorado for the wild-card lead with three other teams to leapfrog - a daunting task with 23 games remaining.
Atlanta has dropped six of seven, with its offense particularly anemic in the last six. The Braves have scored three runs or fewer in all six of those games while batting .153 and striking out 52 times. They managed to beat the Astros 2-1 in Tuesday’s series opener before Tommy Hanson(notes) tossed eight shutout innings Wednesday and left with a one-run lead.
Closer Rafael Soriano(notes) couldn’t hold Houston in the ninth, though, blowing his fourth save when Miguel Tejada’s(notes) two-run single with the bases loaded gave the Astros (68-71) a 2-1 victory.
“It (the loss) was awful the way (Hanson) pitched,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He pitched terrific baseball. He had everything going.”
The series finale pits two of the most durable and consistent starting pitchers of the decade. Oswalt and Lowe have 123 and 119 wins, respectively, since the start of the 2002 season. Only Toronto’s Roy Halladay(notes) (127) has more in that stretch.
Houston ace Oswalt (8-5, 3.77 ERA) has been less durable than usual this season, having spent part of July on the disabled list due to a strained left hip. He also left Saturday’s 5-4 win over Philadelphia with one out in the seventh inning due to tightness in his lower back, but manager Cecil Cooper told the Astros’ official Web site that the move was precautionary.
“We thought it would be best to be careful and not take any chances,” Cooper said after the right-hander allowed two runs and four hits while striking out eight. “He didn’t get the win, but he pitched real well.”
Oswalt has faced the Braves for only one inning this season, holding them scoreless in the opening frame May 2 before leaving with a bone bruise in his index finger. Atlanta remains the only NL opponent - besides Houston - that the right-hander has never beaten. He’s 0-2 with a 6.18 ERA in six starts.
Lowe (13-9, 4.36) is 3-3 with a 3.10 ERA in eight starts against the Astros, including a 7-2 win at home May 1 when he yielded two runs over 6 2-3 innings. The right-handed sinkerballer limited Cincinnati to three runs over seven innings last Friday, but wound up on the short end of a 3-1 score.
The Astros are seeking to improve to 5-1 on their 10-game homestand, which concludes with three contests against Pittsburgh this weekend. The Braves, trying to salvage a split of the six-game season series with Houston, will travel to NL Central-leading St. Louis for three games starting Friday.