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Streaking Braves prepare to face Phillies

ATLANTA - Brian McCann says Atlanta is in the NL East playoff race to stay and the Braves get a chance to back up that claim this weekend.

The Braves take a five-game winning streak into tonight's opener of an important three-game series against first-place Philadelphia.

Atlanta's 17-9 record since the All-Star break is the best in the National League, but just barely. They've gained only one game on the Phillies in that span.

The Braves, who were off on Thursday, trail the Phillies by 5 games. Philadelphia beat the Chicago Cubs 6-1 on Thursday.

Manager Bobby Cox says his team must take advantage of this weekend's opportunity to move closer to the Phillies in the division.

'We have to win the series,' Cox said. 'Every series is a big one for us the rest of the year. We've got the Phillies coming in, so we have a chance to gain ground.'

If not for the Braves' 7-2 record against the Phillies this season, the NL East race might be over. The Phillies are 23-11 against the rest of the division but have lost each of their first three series against the Braves.

Despite consistent starting pitching all season, the Braves entered the All-Star break two games under .500. They have gained offensive momentum as Cox has tweaked his lineup and general manager Frank Wren has traded for Nate McLouth, Ryan Church and, most recently, Adam LaRoche.

Martin Prado is hitting .313, including his eighth homer on Wednesday night, as the No. 2 hitter and starter at second base. Shortstop Yunel Escobar is hitting .305 with a team-best 60 RBIs.

The revamped lineup is showing improved balance and power.

The Braves have hit .280 with 36 home runs in the 26 games since the All-Star break. They hit 68 homers in 88 games before the break.

'We're a different team, all-around,' McCann said. 'Our starting pitching is unbelievable. We're starting to swing the bats like we know how, and we're pretty excited about it.

'If we keep getting timely hitting and good pitching, we're going to be there until the end.'

LaRoche, acquired from Boston on July 31 for Casey Kotchman, hit two homers in a 6-2 win over the Nationals on Wednesday night to complete the two-game sweep. LaRoche's focus shifted quickly to the Phillies.

'Anytime you can take two going into a series like this, our confidence is up,' he said.

The Braves have missed the playoffs three straight years since their run of 13 straight division championships.

Wren reworked the rotation in the offseason by adding Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami. Right-hander Jair Jurrjens, who is scheduled to start on Friday night, is the only holdover from 2008. The rotation now also includes rookie Tommy Hanson, who is 7-2 in his first 12 starts.

More pitching depth could be coming. Former ace Tim Hudson, recovering from elbow surgery, could join the staff by September.

'It goes back to our starting pitching,' McCann said. 'It keeps us in every ballgame. It doesn't matter if we only score three or four runs, it seems like it's enough.'