Braves' bench sparks comeback win

Braves' bench sparks comeback win

ATLANTA -- The Braves will spend the remainder of this season without two of their most valuable players -- Chipper Jones and Martin Prado. But with Eric Hinske and Brooks Conrad, they still possess some of that heart and soul of a club that has led manager Bobby Cox to believe this is the hardest-working club he's ever had.

About an hour after the Braves revealed that Prado would miss the remainder of this season with a torn left oblique muscle, Conrad eased their concerns by proving he's still quite capable to serve as their Mr. Clutch.

Conrad stirred a slumbering offense with a game-tying triple, and Hinske responded two batters later by victimizing Anibal Sanchez with a two-out, two-run seventh-inning homer that proved decisive for the Braves in their 3-2 win over the Marlins on Tuesday night at Turner Field.

"It's do or die right now," Hinske said. "You can't lose games like that. We've got four games left to play, and you don't want to let them get any ground on you at all. We're leading now and we know it. So we're going to try to go out there and win every inning. Hopefully this is contagious. Momentum is big in this game."

By beginning this homestand with a second straight victory, the Braves increased their lead in the National League Wild Card standings to 1 1/2 games over the Padres, who lost to the Cubs on Tuesday night.

The Braves will conclude their series against the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon and finish their regular-season schedule with this weekend's three-game series against the Phillies.

"It would be nice if we had a three- or four-game lead," said Tim Hudson, who allowed just one run in six innings while pitching on short rest. "It's tight and there's still a lot of baseball left."

When the Braves managed just four hits and remained scoreless through the first six innings against Sanchez, they were in position to potentially be doomed by the consecutive third-inning infield singles the Marlins produced while scoring the only run surrendered during Hudson's determined effort.

But as he has done throughout the season, Conrad delivered once the seventh inning arrived, and Hinske rewarded Cox's gamble to send him to the plate, despite the fact that he had been hitless with three strikeouts in 10 previous career at-bats against Sanchez.

Showing the poise he's gathered from being a part of each of the past three teams the American League has sent to the World Series, Hinske spit on a first-pitch changeup and remained patient until drilling Sanchez's 2-2 fastball over the right-center-field wall to account for his third pinch-hit homer of the season. It gave the Braves the cushion they needed to negate the damage of the eighth-inning leadoff homer that Dan Uggla hit off Peter Moylan.

"I've hit some balls hard [off Sanchez], but he's struck me out quite a bit, too," Hinske said. "I haven't had much success against him. I didn't really know if Bobby would go to me because I knew I hadn't fared so well off him when I've started against him."

Also standing as one of the many players who have benefited from the faith that Cox shows in his bench players, Conrad sparked the decisive seventh inning with the game-tying triple that caused Marlins center fielder Cameron Maybin to crash into right-center-field wall. Maybin was carted off the field and later diagnosed with a lower back strain.

"Brooksy has been great all year," Hudson said. "Obviously, losing Martin is really tough. But we have a lot of confidence in Brooksy. He goes out there, plays the game hard and that's all you can ask."

While finishing this season as the Braves' starting third baseman, Conrad won't provide Jones' veteran presence or provide the same kind of consistency that Prado provides. But while hitting .284 in the seventh inning or later and producing a .313 (14-for-48) batting average in close-and-late situations, he has certainly proven that he can deliver in the clutch.

"I take every at-bat seriously," said Conrad, who has hit .183 (11-for-60) in the first six innings this year. "But in those big situations, you just want to get it done even more. You can't get too amped up for it. It's just something where you just have to make the most of your at-bat."

With his seventh-inning leadoff single, Melky Cabrera took advantage of the opportunity to make amends for his defensive blunder that allowed the Marlins to gain an early lead. Cabrera spun around and looked helpless while chasing down a Brad Davis fly ball that hit off the left-center-field wall and resulted in a third-inning leadoff double.

After Sanchez struck out, Emilio Bonifacio and Maybin delivered the back-to-back infield singles that left Hudson frustrated and determined not to allow another run.

"It was a crazy inning -- you know, with how it got going and the swinging bunts," Hudson said. "But when I'm throwing my sinker and I've got a pretty good sinker going, there's going to be some hits like that. You just hope that they're spread out throughout the game and not all in one inning like they were in that third."

Making just his fourth career regular-season start on short rest, Hudson displayed a better sinker than he had while posting a 6.10 ERA in his previous five starts.

Consequently, four of the seven hits he surrendered were infield singles.

Hudson may have shown some signs of fatigue when he walked two of the first three batters he faced in the fifth inning. On the way to escaping that threat unscathed, he saw Jason Heyward race nearly 40 yards toward the right-field line to deny Uggla from recording a hit that would have scored at least one run.

"Obviously it looked like it was going to be a tight game, and I gave up that one run in that third inning," Hudson said. "The way they scored that one run, I'd have been sick if we'd have lost, 1-0. But luckily Hinske came through with that big homer."

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