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PHI@ATL: Braves put up five in the first on six hits

ATLANTA -- Jason Heyward needed only one pitch to ensure the Atlanta offense would not be shut out for the third time in four games. The Braves did not need too many more to turn Thursday night's series opener against the Phillies into a blowout.

Heyward's leadoff homer sparked a five-run first inning that lifted the Braves to a 7-1 win, pulling them even with the Cardinals with three games to play for the best record in the National League at 94-65, as well as securing home-field advantage in next week's Division Series.

Though the Dodgers, 91-68, can draw even with the Braves over the season's final three days, Atlanta is assured of the home-field edge in the first round because of its 5-2 record against Los Angeles.

After a 2-for-15 showing in his first five games back from a broken jaw, Heyward finished 5-for-5 with four extra-base hits, accomplishing both feats for the first time in his four-year Major League career.

"I feel like the first few games back, I was trying to be a little careful, but all the aggressiveness is coming back swing-wise and attacking the ball in the zone," Heyward said. "I'm just trying to get good pitches to hit and square them up."

Because the Braves won their season series against the Cardinals, they hold the tiebreaker for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs should both teams finish the regular season with the same record. The Cardinals close their schedule with a three-game set against the Cubs starting Friday, while the Braves finish out their current series with Philadelphia this weekend.

With the first game of the NLDS a week away, the Braves have to hope Thursday night's win rouses their offense at the perfect time and dispels any tension from a string of uninspired performances against bottom-tier opponents. The prospect of home-field advantage has not necessarily lit a fire under the Braves' stretch run -- after having the division all but clinched by the beginning of September, they have lost series to the Phillies, Padres, Nationals and Brewers on their way to a 10-13 record this month.

The cathartic offensive outburst came at the expense of Phillies starter Tyler Cloyd, who needed 40 pitches to escape the first inning. Heyward cranked the first pitch he saw deep to right-center for his 14th home run and third leadoff shot of the season. Elliot Johnson followed with a line-drive single to left, and back-to-back doubles by Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis pushed the score to 3-0 before Cloyd finally recorded an out, striking out Brian McCann.

After the Braves batted around in the first inning, Heyward followed up the home run with a leadoff double in the second, hustling for the extra base on a hit to shallow left that Domonic Brown took too long to retrieve. In the third, Heyward sent a line drive to right that eluded a diving Darin Ruf and allowed him to take second base easily.

After his third double of the night in the fifth, Heyward ran out a dribbler of an infield single that the right side of the Philadelphia infield could not corral, giving him 11 total bases to pass Justin Upton's April 6 total of 10 for the team high this season.

"In the leadoff spot, I know it's really important to be on base in front of the guys hitting behind me," Heyward said. "This lineup's pretty good when someone's on in front of them, because they more times than not get the run in."

The rest of the bats came alive behind Heyward. Chris Johnson snapped an 0-for-13 drought with an RBI double and came home on Jordan Schafer's single into center to cap the first-inning scoring. Cloyd was yanked for lefty Mauricio Robles after allowing two doubles and two walks to start the bottom of the second.

"Cloyd had a hard time with his first-pitch strikes," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He also had trouble with two strikes. They were able to barrel up balls pretty well. Before you knew it, it was 7-0."

The Braves' runaway win was mired by the uncertain injury status of their everyday catcher, who was starting a third consecutive game behind the plate for the first time in two weeks. McCann was pulled from the game in the bottom of the second with a right adductor (groin) strain and was replaced by Gerald Laird, who helped guide starter David Hale through the final four frames of his second career start. The team announced McCann's status as day to day, and McCann confirmed after the game that in a worst-case scenario, he would be back by the first game of the NLDS.

Hale scattered seven hits over six innings for his first career win, allowing his lone run on an RBI groundout by Cloyd in the second. After setting a club record with nine strikeouts in his Major League debut on Sept. 13, the 26-year-old right-hander struck out five batters, coming one short of tying Kenshin Kawakami's franchise record for the most strikeouts in a pitcher's first two career games. The rookie was greeted by his teammates with a congratulatory shower of beer upon his return to the locker room.

"Within, what, have I been here 25 days or something, I get to see a pennant celebration, two calls and a big league victory," Hale said. "It's pretty incredible."

Hale's spot start also marked the final game before the Braves send out their top three starting pitchers for one final regular-season showing before the NLDS begins Thursday. Amid the jockeying for roster spots and playing time elsewhere in the clubhouse, Heyward set the tone for the team's regulars in refocusing after a spell of inconsistency.

"We're already where we want to be in having the opportunity to play for the World Series," Heyward said. "Right now we're playing for home-field advantage, and home is where we would like to be for the most part of our series, but at the same time, we set out to win every day. The mindset doesn't have to change, and that's the good thing about this group."

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