By GEORGE HENRY
ATLANTA — This time, the Atlanta Braves held onto their big lead and locked up a playoff trip with plenty of time to spare.
It couldn’t have felt any sweeter for retiring star Chipper Jones.
Freddie Freeman hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to put Atlanta back in the postseason with a 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.
Freeman’s dramatic drive off Mike Dunn clinched at least a National League wild-card berth for the Braves, who squandered a big lead in the wild-card race with a huge collapse last September.
“They took the attitude last year to try and hang on,” Jones said. “This year we took the bull by the horns. We’re shooting for the stars. We’re still shooting for the division until they close us out.”
Jones, who plans to retire at the end of the season, led off the ninth with a double. He moved to third on a wild pitch by Dunn (0-3) and scored when Freeman’s 22nd homer easily cleared the center-field wall.
“There was never any doubt,” Jones said during the clubhouse celebration. “We knew that last year was somewhat of a fluke.”
Craig Kimbrel (3-1) worked a scoreless inning to help the Braves win their 22nd straight game started by Kris Medlen. The streak is the longest in the majors since the New York Yankees won 22 consecutive games started by Whitey Ford in 1950 and ‘53.
Last year’s September flop was fresh on Medlen’s mind.
“You can’t really win consistently until you lose,” Medlen said. “Losing’s a big part of being able to win.”
Returning to the postseason helps wipe away some of last season’s frustration for the Braves, who blew an 8½-game lead in the wild-card standings and finished September 9-18. They missed the playoffs after one of the biggest meltdowns in baseball history.
This year, Atlanta cruised most of the way and wrapped up a postseason spot with more than a week remaining in the regular season. And the Braves still have a chance to catch first-place Washington in the NL East. They moved within four games of the Nationals, who lost to Philadelphia 6-3, with eight to play.
“It makes it all worth it. I’m happier for these guys because they worked hard,” Jones said.
While he was being interviewed on television, the 40-year-old slugger was doused with bubbly and beer by teammates in a jubilant clubhouse.
“I am so cold right now!” he said.
Four of the five NL playoff spots are secured. In addition to Atlanta, Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco have all punched their tickets to the postseason.
The second-place Braves have a comfortable cushion in the wild-card race, and St. Louis leads the chase for the league’s second wild card.
The Braves will return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Jones went 1 for 2 with two runs and a sacrifice fly that made it 1-all in the second. He is batting .296 and has 14 homers with 63 RBIs. His leadership has been unmistakable in a season that included a final All-Star appearance.
The Braves tied it 1-all in the second. Jones walked, moved to second on Freeman’s single and scored from second on Dan Uggla’s single.
After Martin Prado’s two-out triple in the third, Marlins starter Nathan Eovaldi struck out Heyward, but Heyward tripled with one out in the sixth and scored on Jones’ sacrifice fly to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.
Freeman said he expected Jones to lead off the ninth with a hit.
“He’s done it all year,” the 23-year-old Freeman said. “That’s what he’s a Hall of Famer for. He got the rally started today.”
Eovaldi was trying to win for the first time in six starts. He allowed four hits, two runs and two walks in six innings. He struck out eight.
A.J. Ramos got the first two outs for Miami in the seventh before Dan Jennings struck out pinch-hitter Jeff Baker with a runner on first. Heath Bell faced the minimum in the eighth for the Marlins, and Eric O’Flaherty did the same in the bottom half of the inning for Atlanta.
Donovan Solano hit his first career homer in the second to make it 1-0 and followed with a two-run shot in the seventh to make it 3-2.
“Yeah, I mean, we’ve lost a lot of games and to lose that game like that is heartbreaking,” Dunn said, “especially with the way the team played today.”
REDS 4, BREWERS 2
CINCINNATI — Johnny Cueto pitched seven solid innings, and the Cincinnati Reds stayed in the chase for the NL’s top record by beating Milwaukee after learning they’ll be without their manager for the rest of the week.
The Brewers dropped back-to-back games for the first time in more than a month, and fell to 4½ games behind St. Louis for the final NL wild card spot as the Cardinals later beat Houston 4-0.
Redss manager Dusty Baker met players before the game and revealed he suffered a mini-stroke in addition to being treated for an irregular heartbeat last week. The 63-year-old manager hopes to return to the dugout next week.
PHILS 6, NATIONALS 3
PHILADELPHIA — Darin Ruf homered for his first major league hit, Carlos Ruiz and Domonic Brown also went deep as Philadelphia beat playoff-bound Washington.
Cole Hamels (16-6) overcame five shaky innings to set a career high in wins and help the five-time defending NL East champion Phillies keep their faint postseason hopes alive. Hamels allowed three runs and seven hits, tying his shortest outing of the year.
Philadelphia remained 5½ games behind St. Louis for the NL’s second wild-card spot. Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Dodgers also are ahead of the Phillies in the standings with eight games remaining.
The Nationals’ magic number for winning the first division title in franchise history remained at five because Atlanta beat Miami 4-3. Their lead over the Braves dropped to four games with eight left.
PIRATES 10, METS 6
NEW YORK — Pedro Alvarez hit his 30th homer and drove in four runs as Pittsburgh ended the Mets’ four-game winning streak.
Pittsburgh avoided elimination in the playoff race, remaining mathematically in contention for the second NL wild-card spot. The Pirates posted their 76th victory, the team’s most since 1999 when they won 78.
Alvarez hit a three-run shot that made it 4-0 in the first inning. He drew a bases-loaded walk in the fifth, helping the Pirates win for just the sixth time in 24 games. Garrett Jones hit his 25th homer and drove in three runs for the Pirates. Wandy Rodriguez (12-13) improved to 5-4 since being traded from Houston to Pittsburgh in late July.
David Wright homered and added a two-run single, tying the Mets’ career record of 1,418 hits set by Ed Kranepool.
The Mets’ Collin McHugh (0-3) was pulled soon after Josh Harrison’s two-run triple in the second.
CARDINALS 4, ASTROS 0
HOUSTON — Jaime Garcia pitched seven sharp innings and Jon Jay drove in two runs to help St. Louis improve its playoff chances.
The Cardinals won their fourth straight and extended their winning streak over the last-place Astros to a franchise-best 10 games. They also moved 4½ games ahead of Milwaukee in the race for the second NL wild card. The Brewers lost in Cincinnati 4-2.
The Dodgers, who played later in San Diego, began the day 3½ back.
TIGERS 2, ROYALS 0
DETROIT — Anibal Sanchez threw his first shutout in over a year, and Detroit moved into a tie for first place in the AL Central with a 2-0 victory over Kansas City.
Detroit pulled even with Chicago with eight games to play after the White Sox lost 4-3 to Cleveland earlier in the day.
Sanchez (4-6) retired the first 11 hitters he faced and allowed only three hits. He struck out 10 and walked one.
He threw 105 pitches in his first shutout since Sept. 10, 2011, when he tossed a one-hitter for Florida at Pittsburgh.
Bruce Chen (11-13) gave up RBI singles by Prince Fielder and Delmon Young in the first inning.
The Tigers trailed the White Sox by three games on the morning of Sept. 19, but they’ve made up the ground and will have a chance to win a second straight division title if they can finish strongly enough.
Chen allowed two runs and 10 hits in 6 2-3 innings.
Sanchez has six quality starts in his last seven outings.
WHITE SOX 3
CHICAGO — Chicago gave Detroit an opening to tie for the AL Central lead when Gordon Beckham hit into a game-ending forceout with the potential tying run on second base in the loss to last-place Cleveland.
The Tigers took it with a 2-0 victory over Kansas City
Down 4-0, the White Sox closed when A.J. Pierzynski and Dayan Viciedo hit consecutive fifth-inning home runs off Corey Kluber (2-4) and then pulled within a run when Paul Konerko homered off Chris Perez leading off the ninth.
Perez walked two batters with two outs, and Beckham grounded to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who threw to second baseman Jason Kipnis for the force.
Chicago (82-72) had held sole possession of the division lead since Sept. 3.
Francisco Liriano (6-12) allowed all four runs and seven hits in 3 2-3 innings. He is 1-2 with a 6.30 ERA in his last seven appearances.
BLUE JAYS 4, ORIOLES 0
BALTIMORE — Aaron Laffey and five relievers combined on a six-hitter as Toronto beat Baltimore for the second straight game.
Laffey (4-6) allowed five singles in 5 2-3 innings and won his first game since Aug. 5. He had been winless in his previous six starts. He neither walked nor struck out a batter.
Baltimore began the day 1 1-2 games behind first-place New York in the AL East. The Yankees played at Minnesota in a game that started later.
RAYS 5, RED SOX 2
BOSTON — David Price struck out a season-high 13 and Jeff Keppinger hit a three-run homer as Tampa Bay extending its winning streak to six games and kept its playoff hopes alive.
Tampa Bay entered the day three games behind Oakland for the AL’s second wild-card spot.