Lowe superb as Braves sweep Phillies
Club wins eighth straight behind effort of veteran right-hander
ATLANTA -- Attempting to explain why he and his teammates have experienced a tremendous turnaround over the course of the past three weeks, Braves closer Billy Wagner credits the steady influence provided by Bobby Cox.
When his club suffered nine consecutive losses in April, Cox's demeanor appeared to be quite similar to the one he has displayed since his club vaulted to the top of the National League East standings earlier this week.
But after watching Derek Lowe toss eight solid innings and Omar Infante deliver an eighth-inning single that provided Wednesday afternoon's 2-1 win over the Phillies, even the steady Cox had to recognize the significance of the fact that his club had managed to prolong the defending NL champs' recent woes by handing them a three-game sweep this week at Turner Field.
"Today was a big game," Cox said after his club extended its season-best winning streak to eight games. "We gained three [games] on them instead of one. We lose today, we gain one. We win today, we gain three. Today was a huge game for us to win."
"Huge" is not a word often utilized by Cox while describing the significance of anything less than a game that clinches a division or a postseason series. But at the same time, it was pretty hard for him to ignore the fact that within a span of three days, his club had managed to erase a half-game deficit and move 2 1/2 games in front of the Phillies, who have lost 11 of their past 15 games.
"At the beginning [of the series], if you said we would win two out of three, I think we would have been ecstatic with that," Chipper Jones said. "Having won the first two, that's when you want to get greedy. We had just enough left in the tank."
With Jones forced to exit in the fifth inning because of an inflamed right ring finger, Infante entered to play third base and then took advantage of the eighth-inning opportunity he was afforded after the Phillies opted to intentionally walk Jason Heyward to put runners at first and second with two outs.
Infante fell behind with an 0-2 count, then ended his seven-pitch at-bat against Jose Contreras with a single to right field that scored Nate McLouth, who had drawn a leadoff walk against the veteran right-handed reliever. The game-winner preserved Lowe's season-high eight-inning effort and further showed the strength of a bench that has proved significant while the Braves have won 18 of their past 22 games.
"We have played good baseball," Wagner said. "I know everybody likes to say we haven't played the upper-echelons and that we've caught teams in a down period. But that's a key to it -- getting lucky. I'd rather be lucky than good."
Wagner felt fortunate when he preserved a four-run lead by getting Ryan Howard to ground out with the bases loaded to end Tuesday night's game. The 38-year-old closer had no trouble admitting he simply felt exhausted after preserving Wednesday's one-run advantage during a scoreless ninth that began with him retiring both Chase Utley and Howard.
"It was a big game for us to take at home," Wagner said. "You knew what was at hand. You knew it was a one-swing game, pretty much like last night, and that you just had to guide yourself through it."
Wagner's ninth save of the season nailed down a win for Lowe, who surrendered just one run and six hits in eight innings. Keeping the Phillies off-balance with a changeup that he has displayed much more frequently since that same club tagged him for seven runs on May 7, he was damaged only when he surrendered four consecutive one-out singles in the third inning.
Jayson Werth's RBI single negated the one-run first-inning lead the Braves gained against Kyle Kendrick, and Wilson Valdez's bunt single loaded the bases with just one out. But showing the confidence that he has gained while posting a 2.45 ERA in the five starts he's made since enduring the forgettable one in Philadelphia last month, Lowe ended the threat by getting Utley to ground into a double play.
"A month ago, I think it would have been a different inning," Lowe said. "The encouraging thing is we're starting to see better results."
Kendrick, who has allowed just two earned runs in the 25 innings he has completed against the Braves since the 2008 All-Star break, benefitted from three double plays during his seven-inning effort that was only marred when Jones' first-inning double-play groundout scored Martin Prado, who combined with Heyward to open the frame with consecutive singles.
When the Phillies scored their fourth-inning run, it marked the first time during this week's series that they were able to end an inning without facing a deficit. But they were not able to kill the magic currently surrounding this Braves club that has notched six of its 10 last-at-bat victories since May 14.
"We've all played this game long enough that you can't get so excited that you scrapped your way into first place," Lowe said. "We got four months to go, but we're happy where we are. I don't think this team will be complacent at all."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.