PITTSBURGH — Fredi Gonzalez didn’t really expect the Atlanta Braves to catch the Washington Nationals. Not after trailing the front-running and rarely faltering Nationals all summer and into the fall.
Still, the Braves manager took pride in the way his team stubbornly hung in there. And while Atlanta’s chase for the National League East title officially ended with a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night, Gonzalez was hardly disappointed.
A year after a stunning September collapse kept them out of the postseason, the Braves will host the wild card game Friday. Last time Gonzalez checked, you didn’t need to clinch a division title to win a World Series.
“It’s something we shoot for, the division,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t get it, but we’ve got the wild card game and you know there’s been many, many teams that go through the wild card to win the World Series.”
Like say, St. Louis a year ago, a spot the Cardinals grabbed when Atlanta dropped its last five games. It’s a memory that stung during a long offseason, one the Braves can put to rest now.
Still, the Braves will have to survive the one-game playoff to make sure their second playoff appearance in eight years isn’t just a cameo.
Atlanta couldn’t get much going against the Pirates, who rode youngsters Jeff Locke and Starling Marte to one of their more satisfying wins in the past six weeks.
Locke (1-3) scattered two hits over six innings to pick up his first major league win and Starling Marte tripled, homered and scored both runs as Pittsburgh relished the role of mild spoiler. Jared Hughes worked the ninth to earn his second save.
Paul Maholm (13-11) gave up two runs on five hits in seven innings while losing to his former team for the first time, striking out eight and walking three.
“It’s a little disappointing we’re going to finish second,” said Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones. “But we live on past Wednesday.
“It is what it is now,” he added. “We play Friday and all our concentration should be on getting ourselves ready for Friday.”
Locke has spent the last month auditioning for a spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation next spring, his miserable results falling in lock-step with the team’s freefall through the standings. The 24-year-old left-hander came in winless in his previous five starts and – even worse – the Pirates had lost every game this season in which he made an appearance.
Though he struggled at times with his command, issuing five walks, Locke managed to keep the hottest team in the National League in check. Atlanta’s only run came on Jason Heyward’s RBI single in the third but the Braves left the bases loaded when Freddie Freeman grounded out to third to end the inning.
Getting out of the jam largely unscathed was a major step for Locke, who had been prone to allowing one bad inning undo an otherwise decent outing.
“I think there was a couple things out there tonight that really helped his growth,” said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle. “Getting through the third and only giving up one run was one of them.”
Atlanta’s lead didn’t last long. Marte tripled to lead off the third and scored Chase d’Arnaud’s grounder to second.
Marte, part of a young core the Pirates plan to build around, led off the fifth with a drive over the 399-foot sign in center field to give Pittsburgh the lead. The bullpen, even with closer Joel Hanrahan unavailable after a rare blown save on Sunday, made it stand up.
The Braves went quietly until the ninth, when Freeman reached on an error with one out. Reed Johnson lined to left and Brian McCann grounded out to Hughes that led to cheers in two cities about 250 miles apart.
“It is what it is now,” Jones said. “We play Friday and all our concentration should be on getting ourselves ready for Friday.”