Braves keep Wild Card focus with Lowe's gem

Braves keep Wild Card focus with Lowe's gem

ATLANTA -- It's hard to believe that Derek Lowe is just three weeks removed from concerns about his right elbow. It's also growing harder to understand how Brooks Conrad spent most of the previous nine years essentially confined to the Minor League scene.

But as the regular season's final weekend draws near, it's becoming clear that this year's Braves club enjoys the opportunity to thrive amid adversity. Two days after losing Martin Prado to a season-ending injury, they found themselves two wins away from guaranteeing a spot in this year's postseason.

Providing further reason to believe that he can serve as a capable replacement in Prado's absence, Conrad delivered the decisive three-run third-inning homer that backed Lowe's latest strong performance and allowed the Braves to complete a three-game series sweep with a 5-1 win over the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon at Turner Field.

"We need to battle and get two wins," said Braves closer Billy Wagner after a scoreless ninth inning. "No matter what it takes or what you got to do -- you suck it up and die out there for two wins."

The Braves won't necessarily have to record two wins while concluding the regular season with this weekend's three-game series against the Phillies. But a pair of wins would guarantee that manager Bobby Cox will get one more chance to experience the postseason.

"We did exactly what we had to do," said Lowe, who limited the Marlins to one run and recorded nine strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings.

By concluding this series with their Major League-best 55th home victory -- one shy of the franchise record -- the Braves reduced their magic number in the National League Wild Card race to three. They have a 1 1/2-game advantage over the Padres, who beat the Cubs, 3-0, on Wednesday night. The Padres trail the Giants by two games in the NL West. "These games are playoff-atmosphere-type games," Wagner said. "You can feel it. You feel it in your body. You feel that anxiety, that nervousness, all that stuff that you're supposed to feel."

Following the lead Tim Hudson provided Tuesday, Lowe showed no anxiety while making his 12th career start (eighth in the regular season) on short rest. Extending the dominance he displayed throughout the month and further proving he's not simply a sinkerballer, he kept the Marlins scoreless until surrendering singles to three of the final four batters he faced in the sixth inning.

"His last four starts or so have just been dominating," Cox said of Lowe, who has gone 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in the five starts he has made since skipping a Sept. 3 start against the Marlins because of elbow discomfort caused by a bone chip.

Although the rest may have helped, Lowe can seemingly credit his recent dominance to a confidence-building strategic meeting with Roger McDowell before his Sept. 13 start against the Nationals. On the way to winning each of his past five starts, the 37-year-old right-hander has been armed with a relocated strikeout pitch -- a slider that seemingly disappeared from his arsenal once he arrived in Atlanta last year.

"This is how my breaking ball has been almost until I came here," Lowe said. "The backdoor breaking ball to left-handers is something I've always been able to throw. I really haven't had much success with it for a long time. But confidence definitely helps."

Having lost five of their previous six, the Braves didn't exactly enter this final homestand with momentum. Their confidence took another blow when Prado limped off the field during the fifth inning of Monday night's series opener.

Fortunately, Conrad has so far managed to erase the sting. The 30-year-old rookie further endeared himself to the Atlanta faithful with the three-run homer he drilled off Andrew Miller in the four-run third inning that propelled the Braves toward the sweep.

Recognized as Mr. Clutch because of his multiple late-inning contributions, Conrad simply smiled when he was reminded that this was the only of his eight homers to be hit before the seventh inning. It was also the first that he has hit from the right side of the plate this season.

"Hopefully there's more to come than that, but that one felt really good today," Conrad said.

Giving Brian McCann a chance to rest, David Ross recorded three doubles in a game for the first time in his career. The veteran backup catcher's two-out RBI double in the fourth inning gave Conrad a chance to deliver the big blow off Miller, who allowed four earned runs in just three innings.

Although their offense may have been weakened by Prado's absence, the Braves proved they still have a pitching staff that could lead to postseason success. Their starters (Tommy Hanson, Hudson and Lowe) and dependable bullpen combined to limit the Marlins to four runs in this three-game set.

"We're going to fight until the very end, and if things go wrong, we're going to find a different way to win," Conrad said. "The one mainstay we have had is pitching. You can't say enough about those guys. They've been unbelievable."

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