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Braves blank Nats as Cox reaches milestone

Braves blank Nats as Cox reaches milestone

WASHINGTON -- As the Braves have dealt with the turbulence that comes with a September pennant race, they have been thrilled to have battle-tested Derek Lowe aboard to serve as a steadying force.

After Lowe set the tone with five scoreless innings at Nationals Park on Saturday afternoon, the Braves' offense awoke from its recent slumber in time to construct a four-run sixth inning that carried them to a 5-0 win over the Nationals and away from what was a worrisome four-game losing streak.

"It was a huge win for us," catcher Brian McCann said. "D-Lowe stepped up big for us. We did exactly what we needed to do today. But we need to show up tomorrow and do the same."

The Braves tied the Giants for first place in the National League Wild Card race. The Padres moved into first place in the NL West with their 4-3 win over the Reds and the Giants' 10-9 loss to the Rockies on Saturday.

When Alex Gonzalez capped the productive sixth by chasing Nationals starter Yunesky Maya with a three-run homer, the Braves could seemingly exhale for the first time in nearly a week. The four runs tallied during the inning matched the total they had posted while being swept in Philadelphia earlier this week.

"We finally got a homer with somebody on and could breathe a little bit," said Braves manager Bobby Cox while celebrating his 2,500th career win. "We haven't been able to breathe much, trying to catch people. It was a good win today. Get the team rolling again and get some momentum again."

Tim Hudson's extended struggles, combined with a prolonged offensive slumber, led the Braves to drop Friday night's series opener and fall a half-game behind the Padres in the NL Wild Card race. This marked the first time since May 30 that they weren't in line to secure one of the National League's four playoff positions.

But with Lowe managing to keep the Nationals scoreless while laboring through the 103 pitches it took for him to complete five scoreless innings, the Braves at least head into the season's final week with some optimism.

After concluding this series Sunday afternoon, they'll face a six-game homestand that will pit them against the Marlins and Phillies, who will have likely clinched the NL East crown by the time they arrive in Atlanta next weekend.

"We needed the win," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "If we'd have won 1-0, it would have been good. It was nice to get the three-run homer and score some runs. I think this team is pretty confident. What do we have, seven games left? We need to win a lot of those games."

A couple of third-inning miscues led to the only run the Braves tallied off Maya through the first five innings. But Atlanta's offense, which had batted .246 in the previous 22 games this month, gained some life after the Cuban right-hander issued a sixth-inning leadoff walk to Martin Prado.

Consecutive one-out singles by Lee and Nate McLouth set the stage for Gonzalez, who drilled a first-pitch slider into the left-field seats to further tarnish Maya's fourth career start and create some cushion for the Braves' bullpen as they attempted to preserve Lowe's effort.

"When you get runners on, it puts pressure on the other team," Lee said. "We haven't even been getting any baserunners. It's hard to score like that. Today we gave ourselves some opportunities and Alex came through with a huge hit."

While Lowe might not have been dominant as he was when he notched 12 strikeouts and completed eight scoreless innings against this same club Sept. 12, he had reason to walk away with satisfaction. Before these past two outings, he had gone 1-6 with a 5.44 ERA in his nine previous starts against the Nationals.

"Lowe was good, even though he threw 100-plus pitches," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "His slider was really good. That's what he was really cutting us up with in Atlanta and he had it going today. When he was in trouble, he keep going to the pitch."

Lowe notched two of his four strikeouts after allowing Nyjer Morgan to open the bottom of the first by concluding an 11-pitch at-bat with a double down the left-field line. The veteran sinkerballer also pitched around a pair of two-out, fourth-inning singles and a pair of two-out, fifth-inning errors on the way to winning a fourth consecutive start for the first time since May 11, 2009.

"Today was an interesting game because I always felt in control of the game, but the pitch count was just outrageous," Lowe said. "For some reason, I wasn't able to get quick outs and quick innings."

When Lowe exited August with a 4.53 ERA and just two wins in his previous 13 starts, there was reason to wonder if the Braves could depend on him down the stretch. A bone chip in his right elbow forced him to miss his first turn this month.

But while going 4-0 with a 1.07 ERA in the four starts that have followed, Lowe has proven he is capable of solidifying a rotation that has lost Jair Jurrjens to injury and seen a pair of green rookies (Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor) factor into the mix. Lowe has accounted for half of the eight wins recorded by Atlanta starters this month.

"You feel like you're going to win when he toes it up," Cox said. "He's been upbeat here the last three games, really big-time upbeat."

For the first time in a few days, the Braves can once again feel the same way.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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