WASHINGTON -- As the Braves struggled through the early portion of this week, they began to seriously flirt with disaster. With every mounting loss, they were moving closer toward the possibility of being on the wrong end of an epic late-season collapse.
But as they released their frustrations against Stephen Strasburg during Friday night's 7-4 win at Nationals Park, the Braves seemed to right themselves in time to prevent a disastrous end to this season.
"We don't have that many games left," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. "We have to take care of our business as well. Then we can worry about what happens with [the Cardinals] after we take care of our business."
After tallying a three-run first inning against Strasburg and surging toward what was just their eighth win in their past 22 games, the Braves milled around the visitor's clubhouse and watched the Cardinals suffer a 5-1 loss to the Cubs. When Chicago outfielder Alfonso Soriano hit a decisive three-run homer in the eighth inning, a group of Atlanta players roared.
With their victory and the Cardinals' loss, the Braves gained a three-game lead in the National League Wild Card race and reduced their magic number to three.
The Braves' fortunes seemed to take a 180-degree turn over the course of a little more than 24 hours. Things started going their way early Thursday evening when the Cardinals blew a four-run ninth-inning lead and lost to the Mets. Had they held on to win, Atlanta's lead in the NL Wild Card standings would have been just one game for the first time since June 26.
"Everybody's spirits were a little better coming in today, knowing we had some margin of error," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "There is a lot of baseball left to be played here and in St. Louis."
It did not take the Braves long to distance themselves from the frustrations felt on Wednesday night when they totaled two hits against Javier Vazquez and two Marlins relievers. They tallied four hits off Strasburg in a three-run first inning that provided an early advantage for Tim Hudson as he aimed to extend his mastery of the Nationals.
Hudson was in command until he began cramping during a two-run sixth inning that cut the Nats' deficit to three runs. The veteran pitcher allowed a one-out double to Mike Morse and then singles to three of the next four batters he faced.
The Braves removed Hudson with two outs in the sixth inning and sent him to a local hospital to receive fluids. He has occasionally battled dehydration and cramping issues throughout his career.
There does not seem to be any concern about Hudson making his next start. It's just a matter of when he will make it. He would start Wednesday's regular-season finale against the Phillies if the Braves have not clinched at that point. If they have already clinched, he will likely start Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Oct. 1.
"It's nothing serious," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's something he has a history with. It was probably a little more humid than we were expecting up here."
Hudson gained his early lead when Martin Prado, Jones and Dan Uggla recorded consecutive one-out, first-inning singles against Strasburg, who was making just his fourth start since returning from Tommy John surgery. Freddie Freeman added an RBI single, and the first-inning scoring was capped when Jack Wilson snuck a two-out grounder between Ryan Zimmerman's legs.
"Any time you can jump ahead like that in those early innings, you have to take advantage of those opportunities," said Uggla, who has five hits in six career at-bats against Strasburg. "Any time you can put them on their heels just a little bit early, it makes a difference."
Strasburg settled down after the first inning and showed why he has been surrounded by so much hype since being selected with the top overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. But taking the cautious route with their phenom, the Nationals lifted him after four innings with his pitch count at 75 -- his highest total since returning from the surgery.
"He really started to overthrow and not pitching," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He got into a little trouble stepping back. He just got pumped up. He was just throwing the ball and not pitching. It was pretty obvious."
Once Strasburg exited, the Braves took advantage of the two walks Colin Balester issued in the fifth inning. Brian McCann's two-run double highlighted the three-run fifth and provided him some much-needed encouragement. The All-Star catcher entered the game having recorded just three hits in 21 at-bats since halting his struggles with a two-homer game on Sept. 13.
The Nationals cut their deficit to two runs when Jayson Werth began the eighth inning with a home run off the suddenly slumping Jonny Venters. This was just the third homer Venters has allowed in 169 career innings. But the left-handed All-Star reliever has given up eight earned runs in his past 12 1/3 innings.
Venters escaped the eighth without any further damage, and before Craig Kimbrel notched his 46th save, the Braves gave him an insurance run courtesy of a wacky rundown involving Michael Bourn and Jones.
After getting caught between second and third base on Jones' comebacker to the mound, Bourn extended the ensuing rundown long enough to draw attention to Jones as he was caught between first and second base.
Once the speedy Bourn got to third base, he alertly noticed catcher Wilson Ramos was at third and nobody was covering the plate. He sprinted toward the plate and scored in uncontested fashion.
"Speed kills," Jones said. "Not my speed, his speed."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.