Series win over Cubs leaves Braves upbeat

So how to describe the changed mood in the visitors' clubhouse Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, after the Braves beat the Chicago Cubs 4-1 to clinch their first road series win in nearly two months?

Start with thankful (to be in a mediocre division where a 41-43 record puts you in the thick of things).

Then move to upbeat. And cautiously optimistic.

Again.

"We need to get this back to two games by the break, if we can," manager Bobby Cox said of his team's deficit in the National League East standings, where they were 3-1/2 behind Philadelphia before the Phillies' late game Wednesday.

"You're not out of it until you're 12 or 13 games out," he added. "That first year we won the division, we were [9-1/2] games out at the break."

Second-place Florida also stands between the Phillies and the Braves, who open a four-game series Thursday at Colorado against a team that's 25-7 since June 4.

With regard to the surging Rockies, the Braves might take comfort knowing that the power-laden Cubs had won eight of nine games before the Braves held them to two runs and 13 hits in 18 innings Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Braves showed in Tuesday's 2-1 win and Wednesday's series finale why plenty of people in baseball believe Atlanta, despite its lackluster first half, could still make a run at the NL East crown: Pitching, pitching, pitching.

Kenshin Kawakami (5-6) limited the Cubs to one run and four hits in six innings, including a sixth-inning leadoff homer by Kosuke Fukudome, his Japanese countryman and longtime former Chunichi Dragons teammate.

"He might have took half of my happiness today," Kawakami said through his interpreter after the game. He smiled when he said it.

Cox said he replaced Kawakami after six innings to assure slight soreness in his shoulder didn't worsen. "We want him fresh for the second half," Cox said.

Kawakami said — without an interpreter — that the shoulder was "no problem."

This was Kawakami's and the Braves' day, not Fukudome's or the Cubs and their adoring Wrigley denizens, who packed the ballpark again, 40,000-strong on a cool afternoon when the first pitch was delayed 42 minutes because of rain.

"The object is the same each and every day — we're playing to win," said first baseman Casey Kotchman, whose sixth-inning homer was the game-winner for the Braves, who tacked on two runs in the ninth after Cubs mistakes. "As long as we play crisp, sound baseball, we're giving ourselves a chance to win."

The Braves played sharp defense — shortstop Yunel Escobar was exceptional — and produced enough offense to assure Kawakami's performance didn't go unrewarded. They did the same (barely) Tuesday when Javier Vazquez pitched seven dominant innings in a 2-1 win.

"Our [pitching] staff was great" in the series, Kotchman said. "We played clean defense, didn't give away outs, and we try to get as much out of our offense as we can."

Kawakami had but one win in his previous seven starts, and Friday at Washington he lasted only 4-1/3 innings and allowed four earned runs. But he was aggressive and unwavering Wednesday, and made key pitches when he needed them most.

"He pitched great and got himself out of trouble," catcher Brian McCann said. "He dug deep today."

Kawakami walked Fukudome to start the first inning, then induced a double-play grounder to begin a stretch of nine consecutive batters retired. He gave up two singles in the fourth before Milton Bradley's inning-ending groundout.

In the sixth, after the Fukudome homer and Ryan Theriot's single to start the inning, Kawakami got hot-hitting Derrek Lee to ground into a double play.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.