PITTSBURGH — Fredi Gonzalez didn't really expect the Atlanta Braves to catch the Washington Nationals. Not after trailing the front-running and rarely faltering Nationals all summer and into the fall.
Still, the Braves manager took pride in the way his team stubbornly hung in there. And while Atlanta's chase for the National League East title officially ended with a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night, Gonzalez was hardly disappointed.
A year after a stunning September collapse kept them out of the postseason, the Braves will host the wild card game on Friday. Last time Gonzalez checked, you didn't need to clinch a division title to win a World Series.
"It's something we shoot for, the division," Gonzalez said. "We didn't get it, but we've got the wild card game and you know there's been many, many teams that go through the wild card to win the World Series."
Like say, St. Louis a year ago, a spot the Cardinals grabbed when Atlanta dropped its last five games. It's a memory that stung during a long offseason, one the Braves can put to rest now.
Still, the Braves will have to survive the one-game playoff to make sure their second playoff appearance in eight years isn't just a cameo. Atlanta couldn't get much going against the Pirates, who rode youngsters Jeff Locke and Starling Marte to one of their more satisfying wins in the last six weeks.
Locke (1-3) scattered two hits over six innings to pick up his first major league win and Starling Marte tripled, homered and scored both runs as Pittsburgh relished the role of mild spoiler. Jared Hughes worked the ninth to earn his second save.
"It just feels good to win, after everything this team has been through this year, especially this last little while," Locke said.