By Will Graves/The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — The Atlanta Braves’ hopes of winning the National League East ended Monday night with a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that clinched the division title for the Washington Nationals.
The Braves, who needed to sweep the Pirates and have first-place Washington drop three games to Philadelphia to tie for the division lead, will instead be the top wild card team when the postseason begins Friday.
Starling Marte hit his sixth home run of the season and scored twice to lead the Pirates.
Atlanta managed just two hits against Pittsburgh’s Jeff Locke (1-3), who picked up his first major league win. Jared Hughes worked the ninth for his second save in place of regular closer Joel Hanrahan.
Former Mississippi State star Paul Maholm (13-11) gave up two runs in seven innings while losing to his former team for the first time, striking out eight and walking three.
The Braves had been stubbornly tracking the Nationals for the last four months, refusing to wilt despite Washington’s hot pace. They came to Pittsburgh with an 8-2 record in their last 10 games to draw within 3 games of the Nationals.
Their September surge put to rest the memories of their nightmarish collapse last fall when they blew a huge cushion over the season’s final month and missed the playoffs entirely.
Still, Atlanta’s chance of winning its first division crown since 2005 ended when it couldn’t muster much offense against a team in the midst of its own personal nightmare.
Locke has spent the last month auditioning for a spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation next spring, his miserable results falling in lock-step with the team’s freefall through the standings. The 24-year-old left-hander came in winless in his previous five starts and — even worse — the Pirates had lost every game this season in which he made an appearance.
Though he struggled at times with his command, issuing five walks, Locke managed to keep the hottest team in the National League in check. Atlanta’s only run came on Heyward’s RBI single in the third but the Braves left the bases loaded when Freddie Freeman grounded out to third to end the inning.
Atlanta’s lead didn’t last long. Marte tripled to lead off the third and scored Chase d’Arnaud’s grounder to second.
Marte, part of a young core the Pirates plan to build around, led off the fifth with a drive over the 399-foot sign in center field to give Pittsburgh the lead and the Pirates spent the last four innings enjoying playing the role of mild spoiler in a series that isn’t nearly as important as it looked on the calendar six weeks ago.
Back then the Pirates were well above .500 and in search of their first playoff spot in two decades. Now they’re assured of a record 20th straight losing season after a ninth-inning meltdown by the normally reliable Hanrahan on Sunday.
The burly closer, a former National reliever, could only watch as his teammates helped Washington into rare territory of its own.
The Braves went quietly until the ninth, when Freeman reached on an error with one out. Reed Johnson lined to left and Brian McCann grounded out to Hughes that led to cheers in two cities about 250 miles apart.
NOTES: The Braves scratched 2B Dan Uggla about an hour before the game as a precautionary measure due to swelling in the knuckle on his right index finger. Uggla injured the hand when the Braves celebrated clinching a playoff spot last week. Martin Prado started in Uggla’s place, with Johnson replacing Prado in the outfield … Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said there are no plans to change the pitching rotation through the final two games of the season even with Atlanta locked into the wild card … The series continues on Tuesday, with Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson (13-9, 4.38) facing Pittsburgh’s Kevin Correia (11-11, 4.33) … The Pirates honored Atlanta 3B Chipper Jones before the game by giving him a specially branded base that will be used during the series and donating $5,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.