ATLANTA — Around Memorial Day weekend, there are three baseline measures for determining if a balanced ballclub is on the path to 90-plus wins — without figuratively breaking a sweat.
1. Dominate opponents at home.
2. Be consistently good against division foes.
3. Show little mercy against baseball’s proverbial weaklings — especially during interleague play.
On Wednesday, the Braves accomplished two of the three tasks without incident, routing the free-falling Twins 8-3 at Turner Field.
From the get-go, the result was surprisingly one-sided, given that both clubs were embroiled in a hotly contested, rain-delayed, extra-inning affair on Tuesday that ended just before the stroke of midnight — thanks to Freddie Freeman’s walkoff RBI.
But then again, maybe that come-from-ahead loss further frayed the pysche of a Minnesota team that has lost eight straight, while plunging from contention in the American League Central. Simply put, the Twins (18-25) looked like a club happy to escape the heat and humidity of Atlanta … for the familiar environs of Detroit, a Central foe.
For the Braves (five series sweeps this season), Wednesday’s win was the byproduct of timely hitting, excellent pitching from starter Paul Maholm (zero earned runs in 7.1 innings) and homers from Ramiro Pena, B.J. Upton and Evan Gattis — who crushed an opposite-field grand slam off Vance Worley in the fourth inning, vaulting Atlanta’s lead to 7-0.
“That’s the second time, this season, I’ve seen an opposite-field homer on a 3-0 count, from a right-handed hitter,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, referring to the “legend” Gattis and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera.
Gonzalez wasn’t making a direct comparison between the pair, per se, but in Gattis’ case, “that’s the sign of a good hitter. Having the patience (to wait in the count) … and then having enough juice” to crush it to right field.
Gattis’ Wednesday blast came roughly 14 hours after his pinch-hit, game-tying homer off Twins closer Glen Perkins in the 9th, with the Braves down to their final out. For what it’s worth, Gattis (10 HR, 27 RBI) has a rate of one home run for every 12.3 at-bats; and Justin Upton — the current MLB leader in homers (14) — has a rate of 11.5.
“Stop talking, let’s go! This isn’t your first homer!” shouted Maholm across the Braves locker room to Gattis, while the media crush surrounding El Oso Blanco delayed the media horde for Maholm, Wednesday’s winner.
It was a playful jab, designed to keep Gattis grounded … or at the very least, help Maholm beat Atlanta’s rush-hour traffic after a matinee outing.
“I wanted to go as deep as I possibly could,” said Maholm, alluding to how the Braves burned through their bullpen on Tuesday and needed a rest on Wednesday. The southpaw, who wasn’t happy with his mechanics in the first few innings, has surrendered just two or less runs in seven of his 10 starts this year.
And at 6-4 before Memorial Day, Maholm has evolved into a reasonable bet to post career highs in wins (13), ERA (3.66) and WHIP (1.22).
For the season, the red-hot Braves (winners of six straight) are 15-5 at home, 11-4 against National League East foes and 15-2 against clubs with under-.500 records (as of May 21). If these aren’t enough prime indicators of future success — in the form of Atlanta reaching the playoffs for the third time this decade — here are two more:
**At the time of this writing, Atlanta (28-18) is the only NL East club with an above-.500 record.
**Brandon Beachy’s impending arrival (perhaps around July 1) will likely put Braves management in the slightly awkward position of pigeonholing six quality starters (Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Beachy, Maholm) into five rotational slots.
Of course, it’s hard to tell if that qualifies as an actual problem in baseball circles. It’s more of a healthy dilemma.