Cubs edge Braves in battle of NL’s top two teams

The Cubs’ Jason Heyward  scores a run  in the second inning Thursday night at SunTrust Park.

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

The Cubs’ Jason Heyward scores a run  in the second inning Thursday night at SunTrust Park.

Two division leaders -- the teams with the two best records in the National League -- squared off Thursday night at SunTrust Park.

The team with the best record, the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs, defeated the team with the second-best record, the NL East-leading Braves, 5-4.

“This is what you play for. Those kind of games, it’s always fun,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said afterward. “It was a well-fought ballgame ... a good ballgame on both sides. They just came out on top.”

A two-run pinch-hit home run by former Brave Tommy La Stella off Mike Foltynewicz in the sixth inning was the difference, turning a 4-3 Atlanta lead into a 5-4 Chicago lead that held up.

It was a one-game stop at SunTrust Park by the Cubs, the makeup of a May rainout, and the final regular-season meeting this year between the teams. The Braves and Cubs split the season series, each winning three games.

Maybe they’ll meet again in the playoffs.

“It’s two good ballclubs going at it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s kind of inches in games like this that make a difference.”

Entering the night, the Cubs (78-54) led the Braves (74-58) and St. Louis Cardinals (74-59) for the NL’s best record. The game marked the first time since September 2010 that the Braves played in a matchup this late in the season of teams with the league’s two best records.

By night’s end, the surging Cardinals had passed the Braves by a half-game for the league’s second best record, 75-59 vs. 74-59.

More importantly, the Braves’ loss shaved a half-game off their lead in the NL East. The Philadelphia Phillies, who were off Thursday, are now three games behind.

The Braves have lost six of their past seven home games.

The Cubs took an early 3-0 lead, scoring two runs in the second inning and one in the third off Braves starter Foltynewicz. The second-inning rally came with the aid of a controversial balk called on Foltynewicz.

“All I really did was spit,” Foltynewicz said.

The Braves got within 3-1 in the bottom of the third inning on Freeman’s two-out RBI single off left-handed starter Mike Montgomery.  Then, in the fifth inning, Freeman drilled a two-run triple to left-center field -- a line drive that got past diving center fielder Jason Heyward and rolled to the wall, scoring Ronald Acuna and Johan Camargo. A sacrifice fly by Kurt Suzuki scored Freeman to give the Braves a brief 4-3 lead.

One of the positive takeaways from the game for the Braves was that Freeman, who had two hits and three RBI, seems to be emerging from an uncharacteristic slump.

“It’s been a work in progress. Everybody goes through them during the course of the year,” Freeman said. “Hopefully, that’s a sign I’m coming out of it and can have a nice little September.”

La Stella’s long game-deciding home run to right field was his MLB-leading 20th pinch-hit this season. But it was his first home run of the season and the first pinch-hit home run of his career.

“We were trying to go up over the bat (with the pitch), and I think I missed down, right at his belt there,” Foltynewicz said of La Stella’s homer. “He put a good swing on it, obviously. ... I let the team down.”

Newly acquired first baseman Lucas Duda made his debut for the Braves, pinch-hitting for Foltynewicz in the sixth. Duda showed a glimpse of the power the Braves expect him to provide off the bench, but center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who entered the game when Heyward left with right hamstring tightness, made a terrific sliding catch on the warning track in right-center.

The game drew a crowd of 37,603, bolstered substantially by a hearty contingent of Cubs fans. The Braves surpassed 2 million in attendance for the season at SunTrust Park.