The Braves were planning to return home from their six-game road trip with their first National League East title since 2005, but a prolonged offensive drought nearly took that opportunity out of their complete control. With Atlanta's magic number down to two thanks to Wednesday night's emotional 5-2 win over the Nationals, and with Jason Heyward back in the lineup, the Braves can celebrate on Wrigley Field this weekend.
The Braves activated Heyward from the disabled list Friday morning and slotted him atop the order for Friday afternoon's series opener against the Cubs, his first game since his jaw was fractured on Aug. 21 at Citi Field. He faced live pitching Wednesday for the first time in three weeks and reported to work Friday ready to go.
Having Heyward atop the lineup could be a big boost for Atlanta, as the club took off when he hit .345 in 23 games after being placed in the leadoff spot on July 27.
Left-hander Paul Maholm will face his former team as the Braves open a three-game set against the Cubs. Maholm, who spent the first half of 2012 with the Cubs before coming to Atlanta at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, will be making his first start since Sept. 8 after the Braves skipped his spot in the rotation to examine lingering elbow discomfort.
A contrast MRI exam last Thursday revealed no structural damage in Maholm's left elbow, which had begun bothering him before his Aug. 28 start against Cleveland. Pitching through pain in his last three starts, Maholm has helped trim his less-than-stellar numbers with a 3.18 ERA and 10 strikeouts in his last 17 innings.
"Maybe I need something bothering me to pitch good," Maholm joked on Sunday.
A loss by the Nationals in their four-game series with the Marlins -- which started Thursday night -- would secure a playoff spot for the Braves and enable them to clinch the NL East outright with their next victory.
The Cubs went to a six-man rotation for two turns starting last week in order to get a better look at 32-year-old right-hander Scott Baker, who will be making his third and final scheduled start of the season. After impressive outings in his first two starts since returning from April 2012 Tommy John surgery -- including six innings of one-run ball last Saturday against the Pirates -- Baker has one last chance to make an impression before he hits free agency this offseason.
"I felt at this point in the season, as much as I'm ready to have a good, normal productive offseason, I feel I'm getting stronger," Baker said Thursday. "I think that's a good sign. We'll just have to see where it lands me. I do feel like I'm not as much of a question mark as maybe I was going into this season. I feel better about going into next season."
Baker is signed to a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Cubs, and he does not have an option for 2014, making Friday a crucial opportunity to show the progress of his recovery from Tommy John to the entire league.
Braves: Gonzalez, Wood ejected • Gonzalez and rookie starter Alex Wood were ejected in the fifth inning of Wednesday night's loss for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire CB Bucknor. The Braves took issue with Bucknor's strike zone after Wood issued a bases-loaded walk to Jayson Werth to bring home the first run of the game.
• Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was left out of Wednesday's starting lineup after dealing with a stiff neck throughout Tuesday's doubleheader, although he entered as a pinch-runner for Evan Gattis in the seventh inning and lined out to right field in the ninth. Gonzalez said the ailment did not influence Simmons' game-ending error in Tuesday's Game 1, when he let a Denard Span grounder roll between his legs.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.