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SD@ATL: Hale fans nine over five scoreless in debut

David Hale knows the nerves will be there on Thursday night. Not only will he be making his second Major League start, but he'll do so with the Braves battling for home-field advantage in the National League playoffs.

But Hale isn't dreading the butterflies.

"I'm always nervous when I play," Hale said. "Even in the Minor Leagues, I was always nervous. I think it's good. It keeps me from being complacent, and it makes me stay on top of stuff and focus."

Hale will oppose Tyler Cloyd as the Braves and Phillies kick off a season-ending four-game series at Turner Field. Atlanta sits a half-game behind St. Louis -- but tied in the loss column -- in the chase for the best record in the NL. The Cardinals are idle on Thursday, so a Braves win pulls them even with three to play.

All of that puts a lot on the shoulders of a right-hander who will celebrate his 26th birthday on Friday and who didn't make his Major League debut until Sept. 13.

Hale was 6-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 22 games, including 20 starts, for Triple-A Gwinnett. The Marietta, Ga., native faced the Padres in front of more than a hundred friends and family members who made the trip. He responded by setting a Braves record with nine strikeouts in his first big league start, over five scoreless innings.

"We need him to plug this game here tomorrow, and I see him giving us a good opportunity like he did last time," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

"That's the reason we brought him up. We feel like he's a big part of this organization. He has gotten better every year. Put him in there, and you feel comfortable. It's not an audition, but it's 'Okay, here you are, pitching in a big stage. Us coaches remember what you did last time.' Going into Spring Training next year, there's always revamping of rosters and that kind of stuff, and why not?"

Cloyd (2-6, 5.40 ERA) also has a chance to boost his future stock, but the right-hander has been struggling.

He'll go into his first career appearance against Atlanta carrying an 11.77 ERA over three September starts, all losses. He gave up at least five runs in each of those outings, including against the Mets on Saturday, with four of those runs coming without him recording an out in the sixth.

"The second or third time through the lineup, he seems to struggle at times," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He still has to be pinpoint with his command and be on the corners. He's getting a chance to pitch, and he'll get another chance."

Phillies: A visit from Howard
First baseman Ryan Howard has been mostly absent from the team since undergoing season-ending left knee surgery in July, but he will join the Phillies for this final series. He will participate in pregame workouts, and Sandberg is looking forward to seeing him take batting practice, field ground balls and run the bases.

The Phillies expect Howard to be ready for Spring Training. He will go into next season at age 34, with three years and $75 million still remaining on his contract.

• After an 0-for-4 game on Wednesday, catcher Carlos Ruiz is 2-for-31 with three RBIs over his past eight games. Ruiz had gone 10-for-20 with 10 RBIs in his previous five contests.

Braves: Leaning on Heyward
Jason Heyward was out of the Braves' lineup on Wednesday, but he is expected to play all four games of the Phillies series. He played in five straight after the team activated him from the disabled list last Friday in Chicago, but he appeared only as a defensive replacement on Saturday.

Since returning, Heyward has made each of his four starts in center field and gone 2-for-15 with one walk, four strikeouts and no extra-base hits.

• First baseman Freddie Freeman and reserve catcher Gerald Laird were ejected from Wednesday's game against the Brewers following a fracas that stemmed from Carlos Gomez's reaction to a home run off Paul Maholm.

Worth noting
• The Braves own an 8-7 advantage in the season series, including 4-2 at home.

• A win would give Atlanta 94 for the season, matching last year's total.

• The Phillies have lost six of seven, scoring 18 total runs and going without a single homer in that span.

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