The Braves appear poised to return to the playoffs for the first time in five years, and Derek Lowe's contract no longer seems like an albatross around the neck of the franchise.
Those points were underscored Wednesday at Turner Field, where Lowe won his fifth consecutive start, and the Braves beat Florida 5-1 to complete a sweep that drew them a step closer to a playoff berth.
Brooks Conrad hit a three-run homer in a four-run fourth inning that propelled the Braves to their 90th win, maintaining a 1 1/2-game lead in the wild-card race over San Diego, which beat the Chicago Cubs 3-0 late Wednesday night.
"We need to keep winning," said manager Bobby Cox, whose Braves have Thursday off before a crucial season-ending, three-game series against National League East champion Philadelphia that starts Friday at Turner Field.
After Wednesday, San Diego has four games left -- one with the Cubs and a three-game weekend series at San Francisco, which has a two-game NL West lead over the Padres.
The sweep of the Marlins came after the Braves lost five of their last six games on a road trip, including being swept at Philadelphia and dropping two games against lowly Washington.
"It was huge," Conrad said of the bounce-back sweep against Florida. "We had to do it. From here on out we've got to keep winning. We'll have a nice off day tomorrow to rest up and spend some time with the families, and get ready for Philly coming in."
Any combination of Braves wins and Padres losses totaling three will give the Braves the wild-card outright.
"We're not a team that can put it in cruise control or sit back and be like, we're right there," said Braves backup catcher David Ross, whose career-high three doubles Wednesday including a two-out hit in the third inning for a 1-0 lead Atlanta never relinquished.
Conrad followed Ross and belted a homer off Marlins left-hander Andrew Miller (1-5), the first of Conrad's eight homers that have come before the seventh inning and the first off a lefty.
Since Martin Prado's season-ending oblique-muscle tear, Conrad has started the past two games at third base and had a triple, a home run and four RBIs.
Ross cautioned that the Braves couldn't afford to relax.
"If we let up at all, we're not very good," he said. "So as long as we keep pushing and keep working hard and grinding out at-bats and doing all the little things, we're going to be fine. Because our pitching staff's really stepped up for us."
Veteran starters Tim Hudson and Lowe (16-12) set the tone the past two games. Each worked on short rest because of Jair Jurrjens' knee injury, and Hudson and Lowe each limited the Marlins to one run before the stalwart bullpen took over.
Lowe allowed seven hits and one walk with nine strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings, continuing the best run of his two-year stint with the Braves.
"It's fun to be pitching at your best at the right time," said Lowe, who is 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his past five starts, a streak that began after his missed a start with elbow inflammation from a bone chip.
"It's what I've always enjoyed, this time of the year going out there and pitching in meaningful games this late in the season."
His durability and big-game reputation with Boston and the Los Angeles Dodgers were reasons the Braves signed Lowe to a four-year, $60 million contract before last season.
But before this recent resurgence, that deal was criticized by some as one of the worst contracts the Braves handed out in recent years. Lowe has quieted critics with each performance during his recent torrid stretch.
"His last four starts or so have just been dominating," Cox said. "He's striking out guys. That's his 16th win today. [Short rest] didn't affect him at all. He was fired up, and he could hit with that breaking ball anytime he wanted to."
During his winning streak, Lowe has pitched 30 2/3 innings and allowed 30 hits, four runs and three walks with a whopping 29 strikeouts. This after he went 1-4 with a 4.91 ERA in eight starts before skipping a turn for the elbow.
Lowe struck out five consecutive batters before Logan Morrison's two-out single in the third inning, then struck out the next batter, Braves nemesis Dan Uggla.
"Oh, man," Ross said. "That's what big players do. That's why they pay him the big bucks, really, because he's a big-time pitcher and he's been in these situations before."
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