PITTSBURGH — Not many teams call a game against the last-place Pirates a must-win. The Atlanta Braves did, and they responded exactly the way manager Bobby Cox hoped they would.
Omar Infante had three hits, Derek Lowe beat Pittsburgh for the 10th straight time and the Braves got the breakout victory they badly needed, beating the Pirates 9-3 on Wednesday night.
The Braves opened leads of 3-0 in the first and 8-0 in the third after being held to two runs or fewer in five of their previous six games. They had lost three in a row to fall out of the NL East lead for the first time since May 31, dropping a half-game behind Philadelphia. That margin held when the Phillies beat Florida 10-6.
With the Braves in danger of being swept by the last-place Pirates in a three-game series for the first time since 1994, Cox said the solution was simple: Score more runs.
Score, they did.
"We didn't hit any out of the ballpark, but we made some contact and we finally found some holes with men on," said Cox, whose team had 14 hits and left 13 on base. "It was bound to change. Our luck had to change a little bit. We got it kick started, so to speak."
Pirates starter Zach Duke (7-13) retired only three of 11 batters, giving up six hits and walking two in one-plus inning. Alex Gonzalez's two-run single finished off a three-run first, and Duke was lifted after Lowe doubled, Infante singled and Jason Heyward walked to start the second.
"Obviously I wasn't doing much good while I was out there, so I can't fault the manager (for being lifted)," Duke said. "I was more frustrated with myself at that point."
Reliever Daniel McCutchen wasn't much better, walking Derrek Lee to force in a run in the second before giving up four runs, three earned, in the third. McCutchen's own throwing error on Lowe's sacrifice scored a run, Infante singled in another and Martin Prado had a two-run single.
"This was a must-win here, we needed this win," Lee said after the Braves lost to Pirates starters Brian Burres and James McDonald the previous two days. "We didn't want to get swept here, so it was a pretty big game for us."
Lowe (12-12) is 10-0 with a 2.64 ERA in as many starts against Pittsburgh, the best such record by any major league pitcher. He cruised through six innings after striking out Ryan Doumit with the bases loaded to end the first.
Lowe skipped a start due to a sore right elbow that may require offseason surgery to remove bone chips, but felt no discomfort in his first start since Aug. 29.
"Couldn't have asked for a better scenario — score a lot of runs and every pitch wasn't life or death," Lowe said.
With both teams' rosters bulked up, the final three innings resembled a spring training game. The Pirates used 22 players but still had 13 left on the bench, and Cox lifted five of his position players — including Infante. He went 3 for 5 to raise his average to .342, which would lead the NL if he had enough plate appearances.
The Pirates tied a club record by using eight pitchers in a nine-inning game, reaching the total for the fourth time and first since 2007.
Notes: Pittsburgh is 47-92 with 23 games remaining and is on pace to lose 107 games. ... Cox managed for the last time in Pittsburgh, which was eliminated in the 1991 and 1992 NL playoffs by his Braves. The Pirates presented Cox with a $5,000 check for charity. ... Cox went 125-93 vs. Pittsburgh. ... To honor Roberto Clemente Day, the Pirates wore the beltless-style knit uniforms, with gold caps, like those first worn when Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970. ... 2B Neil Walker singled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 15 games (25 for 65, .385), the longest by a Pirates rookie since Rennie Stennett's 18-game streak in 1971. ... Pittsburgh's last sweep of Atlanta was April 29-May 1, 1994. ... Pittsburgh's Pedro Ciriaco had an RBI double in the ninth in his first major league at-bat. Alex Presley singled later for his first hit.