ATLANTA -- With the smell of champagne still lingering in the air, the Braves proved they were true to their word. A day earlier, Atlanta clinched a playoff spot and allowed itself one night of celebration before resuming its quest to chase down the Nationals and win the National League East.
Wednesday, the Braves did just that. Martin Prado hit a first-inning home run and drove in another run in the third, while left-hander Paul Maholm threw 6 2/3 shutout innings as the Braves beat the Marlins, 3-0, in front of 23,420 fans at Turner Field.
The Braves are four games behind Washington with seven to play, making a comeback a long shot. But they are determined not to concede defeat until they have been mathematically eliminated.
Should Atlanta not be able to overtake the Nationals, it will play in the NL Wild Card game. Wednesday's victory, combined with the Cardinals' loss to the Astros, means the Braves have effectively clinched home-field advantage for that game. The Braves' magic number for the first Wild Card is now one, but they won the season series with the Cardinals and thus hold the tiebreaker.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said it was good to see the Braves continue to play well after clinching, but he didn't expect anything less with their goal of catching the Nationals still possible.
"That didn't bother me," Gonzalez said. "With Paul going, I knew we were going to get a good performance."
Prado quickly showed there would be no hangover Wednesday. Down 0-2 in the count against Marlins ace Josh Johnson, Prado worked the count even and then hit a 92 mph fastball into the left-field seats for his first home run since Sept. 1. Prado added an RBI single in the third inning.
Johnson allowed three runs (two earned) on four hits in six innings, but he couldn't overcome Prado's blast. The right-hander said Prado always seems to be a thorn in opposing pitchers' sides.
"He's a good hitter," Johnson said. "I don't see how his numbers aren't even better than they are. It seems like every time I see him, even when he's not playing us, he's hit the ball all over the field."
The Braves scored their final run on a blown suicide squeeze attempt in the sixth. Johnson's pitch was too far high and outside for Maholm to be able to bunt, but it was also too wild for Marlins catcher John Buck to keep in front of him. With the ball squirting out of Buck's glove toward the backstop, Dan Uggla was able to easily score.
The Braves' offensive spark was more than enough when combined with one of Maholm's best starts since being traded to Atlanta on July 30. Maholm had been shaky in four September starts, allowing 17 runs in 18 1/3 innings. But he appeared to steady himself before the start of the playoffs, allowing fewer hits (five) than strikeouts (six).
Before this season, Maholm had never pitched for a team still in the hunt for the playoffs in September. He said the experience so far has been "awesome," and he is starting to prepare for what the postseason might be like.
"I tried to do as much as I could to kind of treat this like a playoff game," Maholm said. "Where I'm going to go out there and I'm going to win the game and try to set the tone."
With the help of Prado's early burst of offense, Maholm was able to do just that. By the time he exited with two outs in the seventh, he turned a three-run lead over to the Braves' bullpen.
Closer Craig Kimbrel, with the help of a wild pitch catcher Brian McCann couldn't block, struck out four batters in the ninth inning to earn his 40th save. The fireballer became just the second Brave to record back-to-back 40-save seasons, joining John Smoltz. Kimbrel had 46 saves when he was named NL Rookie of the Year in 2011.
Performances like Kimbrel's -- and Jason Heyward picking up his 20th steal to become the Braves first player with at least 20 home runs and 20 steals in a season since Andruw Jones in 2000 -- have Prado believing in their odds going forward.
"We've just got to get our focus and finish strong and try to win as many games as we can win from now on," Prado said. "The way that our pitching and everybody has been playing, it's good to see that at this point we've got a pretty good chance."
Teddy Cahill is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.