With sweep, Braves two back of Phillies
McCann's throw, Diaz's double secure fourth straight win
ATLANTA -- Provided the challenge of a 13-game stretch that would pit them solely against the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies, the Braves provided some early indication that they were on a death march.
But before allowing anybody to deliver them their last rites, they came to life during a series that will truly be remembered as pivotal if they manage to win this National League East race that they've made even more interesting.
"It came at a great time before the hometown fans and right at the time we had to have it," said Braves manager Bobby Cox in reference to the three-game sweep the Braves secured with a 5-2 win over the Phillies at Turner Field on Thursday night.
While notching their first four-game winning streak of the season, the Braves moved to with two games of first place in the crowded NL East race, which is now co-led by the Phillies and Marlins, who are just one game in front of the Mets. Regardless of the fact that there are division rivals still in front of them, this is certainly a position that wasn't envisioned when the Braves won just three of the first nine games presented by this intimidating portion of their schedule.
But through this 13-game stretch, Atlanta managed to notch seven wins, with the final three coming at the most opportune time.
"The way we responded was unbelievable," said Brian McCann, who helped clinch the sweep by beginning the decisive three-run eighth with a single off Ryan Madson.
Matt Diaz followed with a tiebreaking RBI double and then trotted home with one of the two insurance runs that Garret Anderson provided while further victimizing Madson with his first career pinch-hit homer.
"I said this exact thing going into the series," Diaz said. "If we win two out of three, we're right in the middle of it. If we lose two out of three, we might be out of it. If we lose all three, we might all get traded. A sweep never entered my mind. We wanted to win the first one so we would have a good shot at two out of three. To win all three was big."
Actually, this three-game series sweep, which was secured with Rafael Soriano's six-pitch perfect ninth inning, was huge. Had the Braves been swept, they may have essentially removed themselves from the postseason picture. And while winning two would have allowed them to remain the thick of the currently mediocre division, taking all three from the defending World Series champs provided a sense of confidence that wasn't present just five days ago.
"I think we're all taking a new attitude of not getting ahead of ourselves and not putting our season on one game," McCann said.
With Diaz's second-inning bunt single serving as Atlanta's only hit in its first nine at-bats with runners in scoring position, yet another strong Javier Vazquez effort went personally unrewarded. But the no-decision that he incurred while allowing two runs over 5 1/3 innings tasted a whole lot sweeter as the eventful eighth inning unfolded.
The decisive momentum seemed to build with two outs in the top of the eighth, when Jayson Werth attempted to score on Mike Gonzalez's wild pitch that hit the backstop and came directly toward a hustling McCann, who got the ball back to Gonzalez in time to prevent Werth from sliding headfirst with a go-ahead run.
"That's momentum," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "They stopped us. ... That turns the whole game, the whole energy, the brightness of it. They're going back in the dugout thinking, 'Man, we dodged a bullet there. Let's go get 'em now. Things liven up.'"
When Tommy Hanson dominated the Red Sox's lineup and put an end to the Braves' four-game losing streak, he provided a spark that was further fueled by the four-RBI performance that Martin Prado capped with a walk-off winner in Tuesday's series-opening win against the Phillies.
While Prado has since been given the everyday job at second base, Diaz is sharing time in left with Anderson and proving his worth with contributions like the three-hit performance in the series finale. His fourth-inning leadoff single put him in position to score when Casey Kotchman drilled a 415-foot homer off J.A. Happ into the right-field seats.
"I didn't know anyone could hit a ball that far," said Cox while still admiring the rocket produced by Kotchman, whose homer was his first since May 8 and just the fifth he's collected in the 109 games he's played since the Braves acquired him from the Angels before last year's Trade Deadline.
Vazquez, who is 1-3 with a 2.06 ERA in his past seven starts, kept the Phillies scoreless until they tallied two runs in the sixth. But like the adversity created by the Yankees and Red Sox didn't produce doom, the Braves made sure those two runs wouldn't prevent them from completing a sweep that they'll continue to talk about as long as they're able to keep things rolling.
"If we keep playing with the same errorless baseball and the great pitching and timely hitting, this team's going to be tough to beat," McCann said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.