Surging Braves sweep Rockies, rev up for Phillies

Over the past four days, the Rockies saw the Braves team as many had envisioned it before the season began. A team built around strong pitching, but also with plenty of sock up and down its lineup.

The Braves collected 40 hits, eight homers and 24 runs in a four-game series sweep of Colorado at Turner Field, capped by Thursday’s 6-3 win on a toasty afternoon when closer Craig Kimbrel set a rookie first-half record with his 27th save.

Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward each had three hits and a home run for the Braves, who pulled within 2 1/2 games of the National League East-leading Phillies before a big three-game series at Philadelphia that starts Friday.

“It was a good day,” Braves pitcher Tim Hudson (8-6) said after working 7 1/3 innings for the win.

“A terrific homestand,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said after his Braves won six in a seven-game stand to gain momentum before the biggest series so far this season.

Philadelphia, here they come.

The Braves, winners of nine of their past 10, already were elevated before their charter flight to Philly, geared up for a highly anticipated three-game series Friday after trimming another half-game off the lead of their idle rivals.

“We have all the confidence we can have,” said Kimbrel, who worked a perfect ninth inning with one strikeout to break Jonathan Papelbon’s 2006 major league rookie record of 26 saves before the All-Star break.

The Braves have won 14 of their past 17 and own a league-leading 23-10 record since the beginning of June, ahead of the Phillies’ 21-12 during that period.

“We feel like we’re as good as [the Phillies] are,” said Hudson, who allowed three runs, five hits and three walks and improved to 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA in his past four starts. “It’s going to be a battle all the way to the end.

“By no means is it a make-or-break series, but it’s definitely important.”

Pitching carried the Braves for most of the first half, but in recent weeks they’ve ramped up their offense. They have averaged more than 4 1/2 runs during their 14-3 stretch and scored four or more runs in each of their past nine games.

They have won 10 of their past 11 home games while scoring at least four runs in 10 of them.

“We’re ready to go, and hopefully we keep playing the same way we are right now,” said All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who enjoyed a guilt-free rest day Thursday, as the Braves’ lineup kept humming along without him.

“We left spring training with a lineup that can do what we’ve done the last three weeks. I think it’s starting to show right now,” he said.

The Rockies played Thursday without their two best hitters, injured Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, and with Todd Helton out of the lineup to rest. Between them, they were a combined 14-for-24 in their careers against Hudson.

So what happened? Of course, the Rockies jumped to a 1-0 lead in the first inning on Jason Giambi’s one-out double off Hudson, his former Oakland Athletics teammate.

Giambi drove in Jonathan Herrera, who had walked to become the first Colorado player to reach base in the first three innings during the entire series.

The Rockies added a run in the third inning on a bloop hit, a hit-and-run single through the infield and a fielder’s choice. That staked rookie pitcher Juan Nicasio to a 2-0 lead.

It didn’t last long for the Rockies right-hander.

The Braves pounded six consecutive hits off Nicasio (3-2) to begin their five-run third inning, including a leadoff double by Jordan Schafer, a three-run homer by scorching-hot Freeman, and an RBI double by Dan Uggla.

Freeman had four homers in the series, and Uggla went 5-for-9 with two doubles, two homers and four walks in the past three games.

“We spotted them a couple of runs early, then went up there and had some good at-bats and had the big inning,” Hudson said. “It got away in a hurry for that kid [Nicasio] out there.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to our guys. I feel like our guys are starting to get locked in a little bit. ... It’s fun to see some of the guys starting to come around. With the way our pitching’s going and the way our bullpen’s been shutting the door on people, we feel pretty good where we are.”