Instead, they suddenly find themselves looking up in the standings and on the brink of an embarrassing sweep.
Trying to avoid their first sweep to the Pirates in 16 years in Wednesday’s finale, the Braves turn to Derek Lowe(notes), who missed his last start due to elbow soreness but is 9-0 lifetime against Pittsburgh.
Atlanta (79-60) had held the outright NL East lead since May 31, but dropped one-half game back of Philadelphia after Tuesday’s 5-0 loss the Pirates, coupled with the Phillies’ win over Florida.
“Did we expect to be in first place until the end of the season? I mean, it would have been nice,” said Tim Hudson(notes), Tuesday’s losing pitcher. “But we understand that Philly is a pretty good team. There’s a lot of games left (six) with Philly.”
The Braves, who led the division by three games a week ago, have dropped five of six. Most alarmingly, those losses have come to the Mets, Marlins and Pirates (47-91) - all clubs currently out of serious playoff contention. The Braves haven’t been swept in a three-game series against Pittsburgh since April 29-May 1, 1994.
Atlanta’s offense is the biggest reason for the recent struggles, having plated two runs or fewer in five of the last six games. All-Stars Omar Infante(notes) and Martin Prado(notes) are batting .240 and .231, respectively, during the slump.
“We’ve got to get some runs, and that’s the bottom line,” manager Bobby Cox said.
The Braves also need to get Lowe (11-12, 4.53 ERA) back on track.
Lowe’s sore elbow has prevented him from pitching since Aug. 29. It marks the first time the 37-year-old right-hander, who has never been on the disabled list, has ever missed a scheduled start.
Lowe, who has bone chips in the elbow and will decide at the end of the season whether to have them removed, gave up five runs and six hits in three innings against Florida in his last outing. The sinkerballer has lost his last three decisions and has a 6.75 ERA in his last three starts.
An outing against his favorite opponent may be coming at the perfect time.
Lowe has posted a 2.76 ERA en route to winning all nine of his career starts against the Pirates - six of them at PNC Park. He has a 2.25 ERA in two meetings with Pittsburgh in 2010.
The Pirates, who entered this series having lost 20 of 26 games, are one win away from their first three-game sweep since May 4-6, against the Chicago Cubs. Pittsburgh has won two of scheduled starter Zack Duke’s last three starts after winning just two of his previous 11 outings.
Against Washington on Friday, Duke (7-12, 5.24) gave up four runs and five hits in five-plus innings of an 8-5 victory.
The left-hander struggled in his last outing against the Braves on May 28, permitting seven runs and a season-worst 12 hits in 5 1-3 innings of a 7-3 loss in Atlanta. That came five days after he allowed one unearned run over seven innings in a home start versus the Braves.