Braves target NL East crown, pay a visit to Cubs

The Atlanta Braves are hoping their bats will stay alive during the club's pursuit of a National League East title, as they take postseason aspirations to Wrigley Field for Friday's opener of a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs.

The Braves broke out of their offensive slumber with Wednesday's 5-2 win over the Washington Nationals to close out a three-game series and had scored that many runs just once in the previous five contests. The Braves erased a 2-0 deficit at Nationals Park, where they took the lead for good with a three-run sixth inning thanks to a solo home run from Dan Uggla and a two-run blast by Justin Upton.

Atlanta's magic number is two and the club can capture its first NL East title since 2005 with a win Friday coupled by a Washington loss to Miami.

"We knew we had to get this one," Upton told the Braves' website Wednesday. "We struggled at home (this past weekend against the Padres). We struggled yesterday in the first two games of the series. This was a big one for us today and the guys stepped up."

Brian McCann and Jordan Schafer had an RBI apiece for Atlanta, which ended a three-game slide to win for the fifth time in the past 14 tries. Alex Wood got the start and gave up two unearned runs in 4 2/3 innings. Kameron Loe posted the win for getting the final out of the fifth inning. Closer Craig Kimbrel, who blew a save in a doubleheader on Tuesday, fired a scoreless ninth for his major league-leading 48th save.

In NL batting news, Braves third baseman Chris Johnson was 1-for-3 and is three points (.327) behind Colorado's Michael Cuddyer (.330) for the lead. Johnson is fourth overall in all of baseball.

Paul Maholm will try to help the Braves move closer to a division crown when he takes the mound against Chicago. The former Cub is 10-10 with a 4.35 earned run average in 24 starts and is 1-0 in his previous three outings. He did not record a decision in a Sept. 8 loss at Philadelphia and permitted two runs in six innings of a 3-2 defeat.

Maholm, who is 4-8 in 15 road starts, has dominated the Cubs in 17 career starts, going 9-3 with a 5.04 ERA. The Braves are 2-5 in the left-hander's last seven appearances.

Chicago will try to subdue Atlanta's title plans when the club opens its final homestand of the season, a six-game residency versus the Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. Chicago is 29-46 at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs went 4-7 on their season-long, 11-game, 11-day, three-city road trip through Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, and stopped a five-game losing streak with Thursday's 5-1 win over the Brewers at Miller Park. Starting pitcher Jake Arrieta delivered seven innings of one-run ball, five strikeouts and one walk, and said he felt good afterward.

"I told (pitching coach Chris Bosio) after the game, I feel like I just threw my pregame 'pen, and I could've gone another 100 pitches," Arrieta said on the club's website. "That's how good I felt today as far as controlling the game and my effort."

Pedro Strop and Kevin Gregg each tossed a scoreless inning of relief.

Chicago's offense received home runs from Luis Valbuena, Nate Schierholtz and Brian Bogusevic, while Logan Watkins and Anthony Rizzo ended with three hits apiece in the win.

Scott Baker will make his third start of the season and has posted back-to- back no-decisions since returning from Tommy John surgery, which caused the right-hander to miss the entire 2012 campaign. Baker had eight rehab starts between Single-A Daytona and Single-A Kane County and made his Cubs' debut Sept. 8 in a 3-1 loss to Milwaukee, holding the visitors to two hits across five scoreless innings.

Baker then limited the Pirates to a run in six innings of a 2-1 loss at PNC Park on Saturday and struck out four batters. Baker has never faced Atlanta, which swept a three-game series with the Cubs from April 5-7 at Turner Field.