PITTSBURGH -- After keeping the National League East race interesting much longer than most had expected, the Braves can now put all of their attention toward preparing for the one-game playoff that is scheduled to be played on Friday against the NL's other Wild Card entrant.
With their inconsistent offense sputtering yet again at PNC Park on Monday night, the Braves suffered a 2-1 loss to the Pirates and officially ended their bid to create the miraculous finish that would have been necessary to overtake the Nationals in the NL East race.
"It's a little disappointing that we're going to finish second [in the division]," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "But we live on past Wednesday. It was going to be a tough row to hoe, three down [in the division] with three to play. That's never the situation you want to be in. But it is what it is now. We play Friday, and all of our concentration should be on getting ready for Friday."
To win the NL East, the Braves would have had to win each of their final three games while the Nationals lost each of their final three games. If that unlikely combination would have been realized, they would have had to go to Washington D.C. for a one-game playoff on Thursday to determine which team entered the postseason as the division winner.
Instead of having to worry about how this could alter their postseason pitching plans, the Braves can now begin looking toward Friday, when they will host a one-game playoff against either the Cardinals or the Dodgers. They will have the comfort of sending Kris Medlen to the mound in the game that will determine which Wild Card entrant advances to the NL Division Series.
In addition, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will now have a chance to rest some of his regulars over the next couple of days. Jones is among those expected to be out of Tuesday's lineup.
"Something that we shoot for is the division," Gonzalez said. "We didn't get it. We got the Wild Card game. There have been many, many teams that go through the Wild Card that go to the World Series. So we'll take it one game at a time."
The crushing blow in the Braves' attempt to overtake the Nationals came courtesy of Starling Marte's fifth-inning leadoff home run off former Pirate Paul Maholm. The solo shot proved to be enough for Pirates starter Jeff Locke, who was drafted and developed by the Braves before being traded to Pittsburgh for Nate McLouth during the 2009 season.
"He struggled with command," Jones said of Locke. "He was effectively wild. He got himself into a couple jams, but he didn't throw anything fat over the plate where we could get good swings on him. It was the typical first time seeing a guy and not knowing tendencies."
Locke limited the Braves to one run and two hits while issuing five walks in six innings. The effort was good enough for the 24-year-old left-hander to notch his first Major League victory. He was 0-3 with a 7.50 ERA in the five previous starts he made in the Majors this season.
"I had a comfortable feeling tonight, facing my old team and a lot of guys I'm familiar with," Locke said. "I felt real good about it."
Some of the comfort Locke gained could be attributed to the continued offensive struggles experienced by the Braves, who have scored two runs or fewer in 13 of the 28 games they have played dating back to Sept. 1. Thanks to an impressive array of pitching they have managed to win five of those 13 games and go 19-9 during that 28-game span.
"Lack of offense is always a concern, but quite honestly you can't control when you're seeing it good and when you're swinging it good," Jones said. "I can't speak for the rest of the guys. They might feel great. I don't feel particularly good at the plate. But it's up to me to fix it before Friday."
Provided little room for error, Maholm was left with no other choice but to be frustrated at the end of his seven-inning effort. The veteran left-hander allowed two earned runs, surrendered five hits and matched a season high with eight strikeouts.
Having spent his entire career with the Pirates before this year, Maholm has never experienced pitching in the postseason. But he will enter the playoffs with some confidence. He has limited opponents to a .192 batting average and allowed a total of four runs in his past three starts.
"You're going to go through your rough patches, and I went through a couple that were bad. You understand," Maholm said. "You learn from them and you move on. Here lately, I've been executing my pitches and pretty much keeping the ball in the yard."
Marte's home run was just the second Maholm has allowed in his past six starts. It also capped a two-hit day for the Pirates' outfielder, who also tripled and scored in the third inning.
Locke appeared to be in trouble when he issued four walks through the first three innings. But the only run the Braves tallied during this span came courtesy of Jason Heyward's two-out single in the third inning. The single scored Michael Bourn, who singled and advanced to second on a walk drawn by Martin Prado.
"[Maholm] deserved a better fate, but we just couldn't get the bats going tonight," Gonzalez said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.