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Braves Need Wins Over Pirates To Hang Onto NL East Lead

Sports Network - A loss today could push the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves out of first place for the first time since May 30.

They probably couldn't be happier to see the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Atlanta aims to maintain its edge in the division standings and beat Pittsburgh for a sixth time in seven meetings this year when the two clubs start off a three-game set this afternoon at PNC Park.

Losses in three of four games following five straight victories, as well as an 8-9 stretch since Aug. 19, have the Braves just one game up on the Phillies for first place. They could have entered this series tied with Philadelphia atop the standings after a 7-6 setback to Florida on Sunday, but the Phils were also defeated yesterday.

However, the Phillies are scheduled to play a doubleheader with the Marlins today, so a loss by the Braves tonight and a sweep by the Phils would knock Atlanta out of the top spot.

A loss by the Braves doesn't seem likely, though, as they took two of three in Pittsburgh from May 21-23 before capping the month with a three-game sweep over the Pirates at home. Atlanta has won eight of the last 11 overall meetings between the teams.

The Braves rallied from a 6-0 deficit on Sunday, tying the game with a five- run sixth inning before Eric O'Flaherty served up the game-winning run in the 10th frame. Nate McLouth drove in three runs for Atlanta and nearly had more, as he was robbed of a grand slam in the sixth inning on a great defensive catch.

Braves starter Mike Minor gave up six runs over just four innings of work.

"Overall, I couldn't hit a spot." he said. "Everything was basically towards the middle of the plate, and it's easy enough to hit the ball when it's towards the middle of the plate."

Tommy Hanson hopes to join in on the Braves' success over the Pirates when he faces the club for the first time in his young career this afternoon.

The 24-year-old Hanson is coming off his first victory since July 3, as he ended an 0-5 stretch over 10 starts with a win over the Mets on Wednesday. He gave up just one hit and one walk over seven scoreless innings, striking out three while allowing a run or less for the sixth time in his last eight starts.

"My pitches felt really good," said Hanson. "I worked really hard in between starts trying to get my fastball command going. I felt like I did that [Wednesday]."

The right-hander aims for consecutive winning starts for the first time since a three-game win streak from May 26-June 5 and is 9-10 with a 3.60 ERA this season.

Hanson will face a Pirates club that managed just a solo homer out of Pedro Alvarez in Sunday's 8-1 setback to Washington, Pittsburgh's seventh loss in nine games. Neil Walker did add three hits to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, a span in which he is hitting .415 (22-for-53) with four homers and 14 RBI.

Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton lasted only 3 2/3 innings after yielding six runs -- two earned -- on eight hits with a pair of walks.

"A little more aggressive," Pirates manager John Russell said about Morton's outing. "For the most part I thought he was better. Still not where we'd like to get him, but it's a step in the right direction.

With Jeff Karstens unable to make the start tonight due to right shoulder soreness, Brian Burres will come out of the bullpen for the Pirates to his first start since May 29.

"It just doesn't feel right," Russell told Pittsburgh's website of Karstens shoulder. "It's been a long year for him, and it's a little cranky."

Burres faced the Braves in his last start, getting tagged for four runs over five innings to take the loss in his only career appearance against them. He was then demoted to the minors, but returned on Aug. 28.

The 29-year-old lefty has made four relief appearances since his return, allowing six runs over four innings. On the season, Burres is 2-3 with a 6.31 ERA in 14 games, including seven starts.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.