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Braves Week: Brian Bannister Kicks Things Off For The Royals

(Sports Network) - Anyone wondering whether or not the Atlanta Braves are serious contenders for the National League East title need to look no further than their most recent series win.

After taking two of three from one of the top teams in baseball, the Braves will look to take advantage of a lesser opponent as they host the Kansas City Royals tonight in the opener of a three-game series at Turner Field.

The Braves have gone 16-6 over their last 22 games and own a half-game lead over the Mets for first place in the NL East. They come into this set having taken two of three from the Tampa Bay Rays, who are tied with the Yankees for the best record in baseball.

That didn't matter to Atlanta in last night's rubber match. Jason Heyward hit his first home runs since May 29 and Troy Glaus connected on a two-run double in the sixth inning that led the Braves to a 3-1 victory. Glaus recorded his 43rd and 44th RBI since May 1, the most by any player in baseball in that span.

Tim Hudson helped Atlanta win for the fourth time in five games by allowing just one run over seven innings and Billy Wagner recorded his 12th save of the season.

"Two out of three against any team is always good, especially against a team like [the Rays]," Hudson said. "They're one of the best in the American League and we just played some good clean baseball. First game got away from us, but to come back and win the next two really says a lot about our club."

Atlanta now must make sure it doesn't take Kansas City too lightly. Though the Royals are just 29-38 and 9 1/2 games out of first place in the AL Central, they have won five of their last seven after taking Thursday's rubber match with the Houston Astros by a 5-2 count on Thursday.

The Royals surged ahead thanks to a four-run seventh inning that included an RBI single by Yuniesky Betancourt and a three-run homer from Scott Podsednik.

Podsednik went 5-for-13 with five RBI in the series against Houston. He has come up with some clutch long balls in his career against the Astros, including a walk-off shot in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series against Houston while with the White Sox.

"Yeah, for some strange reason throughout my career, I've fared pretty well against Houston," said Podsednik, who is a lifetime .243 hitter in 14 games versus the Braves. "I have no idea why. Certain guys play well against certain clubs and certain pitchers. But it seems like earlier in my career when I was in the National League I fared pretty well against them."

Kansas City's Jose Guillen singled in the eighth inning to stretch his hitting streak to 12 games, and he is hitting .362 (17-for-47) with a homer and seven RBI over his run. Guillen, though, is just 3-for-16 with six strikeouts in his career against the Braves' Derek Lowe, who gets the call tonight after bouncing back nicely from a rough outing in his most recent trip to the hill.

Lowe yielded seven runs in just four innings of a loss to the Diamondbacks on June 7 that halted a three-start winning streak, but he limited the Twins to just a pair of runs over 7 1/3 innings in a no-decision on Saturday that kept his club in a game it won 3-2.

The 37-year-old righty is 8-5 with a 4.81 earned run average this year, but is still pitching to a 3.65 ERA over his last seven starts. A former Red Sox hurler, Lowe is 2-5 with four saves and a 4.90 ERA in 21 career outings versus the Royals, including eight starts.

The Royals' Brian Bannister will try to find the win column again tonight after having his five-start winning streak slammed to a halt in his last trip to the hill.

The right-hander, who pitched to a 3.66 ERA over his winning streak, was pounded for 11 runs -- nine earned -- on 10 hits over just three innings of work Saturday at Cincinnati. Bannister was tagged for three homers in matching his shortest outing of the season and suffering his first loss since May 11.

"It just wasn't Banny's day," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "When he's good, he's working the corners, his fastball's cutting, his changeup's sinking and he just left a couple [pitches] out over the plate."

Bannister fell to 6-4 on the season and his ERA jumped nearly a full point to 5.40. His three worst outings this year have all come on the road, where he is 1-3 with an 8.22 ERA in six starts.

The 29-year-old has faced the Braves just once, back in 2006 while with the Mets. He threw a scoreless inning of relief against them.

These two clubs are squaring off for the first time since 2004, when the Royals took two of three at Turner Field from June 15-17.