Atlanta’s Brian McCann celebrates after hitting an RBI in the Braves’ win Friday afternoon against the Cubs. (Reuters)
CHICAGO — The Atlanta Braves took another step toward the National League East title on Friday.
A 9-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs cut the Braves magic number to just one thanks to a four-run ninth-inning rally.
“This might be the best group of guys as far as resiliency,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “They battle. They’re also a talented group of guys who have gone through adversity at times.
“We’ve clinched a playoff spot, but still we want to make sure you get the whole thing,”
The Braves, who would have clinched the NL East title outright later Friday if Washington would have lost to Miami, got their 91st win in the opener of the three-game series at Wrigley Field as they snapped a 5-5 tie with the ninth-inning outburst.
Brian McCann launched the rally as he singled home Jordan Schafer from third with the go-ahead run. Chris Johnson then had a base hit to right to score Freddie Freeman, who had been intentionally walked.
Cubs reliever Kevin Greg loaded the bases with two outs, and Andrelton Simmons doubled in McCann and Paul Janish for a 9-5 lead.
Atlanta had dropped nine of its previous 14 games, yet held an 8 1/2-game lead over second-place Washington entering Friday’s game.
David Carpenter, the fifth of six Braves pitchers, got the win in relief. Now 4-1, he worked a scoreless eighth with one strikeout. Right-hander Craig Kimbrel pitched a scoreless ninth.
Gregg (2-5) took the loss after working one inning and giving up four runs on three hits. He was the last of eight Cubs pitchers.
Johnson, who went 3-for-4, clubbed a second-inning home run to right off Cubs starter Scott Baker to give the Braves a 1-0 lead.
Freeman collected his 22nd homer of the season on Baker’s 1-0 pitch in the third, driving home Jason Heyward and Justin Upton for a 4-0 Atlanta lead.
“This being my last start of the year I would have liked it to go on a little better resultswise,” said Baker, making his third appearance since his return from Tommy John surgery. “I felt like I have a decent idea what I’m doing out there. Do I think a good, normal, productive offseason will benefit me? Absolutely.”
Anthony Rizzo got one run back for Chicago when he singled home Starlin Castro with two outs in the third off Atlanta starter Paul Maholm.
Maholm doubled to deep right-center in the fourth, scoring Johnson for a 5-1 Braves lead.
Atlanta loaded the bases in the fifth, but Chicago left-handed reliever Zac Rosscup escaped the inning by striking out Dan Uggla.
Castro hit a homer off Maholm to open the fifth. The homer, Castro’s 10th, cut the deficit to 5-2.
Donnie Murphy’s sixth-inning solo homer — his 11th — trimmed the Braves’ lead to 5-3. Maholm departed after that, officially working 5 1/3 innings. He allowed four earned runs on eight hits, and he struck out two.
“I made a couple of bad pitches for the home runs and it seemed later in the game the pitches weren’t the same,” Maholm said. “I don’t know if that was a factor of not pitching for 12 days, but my arm felt good. … I made it through, no issues.”
Reliever Scott Downs was greeted with a run-scoring single by pinch-hitter Luis Valbuena, who drove home Junior Lake as the Cubs crept to within one run.
Catcher Dioner Navarro tied the game at 5-5 with his 13th home run — a solo shot to left off Braves left-handed reliever Luis Avilan.