The Atlanta Braves look like they’ll be in an intense race for first place in the NL East over the final few weeks of the season.
The St. Louis Cardinals appeared to be in a similar position in the NL Central not long ago, but now find themselves on the verge of dropping out of the playoff picture.
Coming off a breakout victory, the Braves try to pull into a first-place tie in the East when they open a four-game series against the slumping Cardinals on Thursday night at Turner Field.
Atlanta (80-60) is one-half game back of East-leading Philadelphia and has a two-game lead over San Francisco in the wild-card race. With the Phillies idle Thursday, the Braves, who fell out of the top spot Tuesday for the first time since May 31, can join them atop the division with a victory.
Atlanta returns home following Wednesday’s 9-3 win over Pittsburgh to avoid an embarrassing sweep. All-Stars Martin Prado(notes) and Omar Infante(notes) combined for five hits and three RBIs for the Braves, who had plated two runs or fewer in five of their previous six games.
“It was bound to change,” manager Bobby Cox said. “Our luck had to change a little bit. We got it kick started, so to speak.”
St. Louis’ luck has just about run out following a dismal past few weeks.
The Cardinals (72-65) had a one-game division lead Aug. 13, but have lost 16 of 23 since to drop six back of first-place Cincinnati with 25 left.
Albert Pujols(notes) hit his NL-leading 36th homer Wednesday, but the Cardinals were held to two runs or fewer for the seventh time in 10 games. The three-time NL MVP is batting .414 with three home runs and 18 RBIs in 16 games against the Braves since 2008, but is 2 for 10 against scheduled starter Jair Jurrjens(notes).
Atlanta is a major league-best 49-19 at home, and Jurrjens (7-4, 4.10 ERA) has been a big factor in this success, going 6-0 with a 2.15 ERA in eight starts at Turner Field with the Braves winning each time. Atlanta plays 13 of its final 22 games at home.
In his only start of the season against the Cardinals on April 29, Jurrjens left after one inning with a strained left hamstring. The right-hander went on the disabled list six days later and didn’t return until June 30.
Jurrjens has yielded three runs or fewer in 10 of 13 starts since returning to the rotation, and is coming off one of his best outings of the season, allowing three hits while striking out seven in seven innings of Saturday’s 2-0 win over Florida.
Wainwright (17-10, 2.34) had the NL’s second-best ERA at 1.99 on Aug. 11, but has recorded a 4.88 ERA in losing his last four starts.
“I don’t like losing one game, much less four in a row,” the right-hander said after giving up five runs - two earned - and seven hits in five innings of a 6-1 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday. “I won’t lose again.”
Wainwright appears to have a good chance to live up to his word with an outing against a Braves team he’s posted a 2.25 ERA in winning all five career starts against.