ATLANTA — Here are three things we gleaned from the Braves’ 2-0 win over the Chicago Cubs on Saturday — Atlanta’s second straight victory of just three runs or less.
The optimist would say that Atlanta (21-15, 1st place in NL East) gutted out back-to-back home victories, without the help of many sustained offensive rallies.
He/she would also point to the excellent starting pitching from Julio Teheran (Friday) and Ervin Santana (zero runs, five hits allowed, seven strikeouts on Saturday), while noting that closer Craig Kimbrel (Friday blown save/Saturday save) looks eminently sharper when getting regular work.
The reserve hitting tandem of Ryan Doumit and Tyler Pastornicky were particularly spot-on against the Cubs in the decisive 7th. With the score tied at zero entering the stretch, a Chris Johnson single, sacrifice bunt and Andrelton Simmons base hit (moving Johnson to third) set the scene for the game’s seminal moment.
With Doumit pinch-hitting for Santana, he laced an opposite-field blast (against Cubs reliever Brian Schlitter) off the left-field wall, easily scoring Johnson. Pastornicky then followed that up with a letter- perfect suicide-squeeze bunt, bringing home Simmons and essentially clinching the Braves’ 12th home victory of the year.
"(The Doumit RBI double) was a big run right there," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez in the postgame media scrum. "And then (Pastornicky) executing the squeeze, that’s another run. You know, when you’re not scoring offensively, every little run that we can scratch, it’s big."
Gonzalez had plenty of praise for Doumit and Pastornicky, lauding their capacity to flourish in their essential roles as pinch-hitters, defensive replacements, hit-and-run guys or even drawing tough pitching assignments — like Pastornicky starting against Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija (more on him later).
"We’ve got plenty of guys in the middle of the lineup who can hit home runs," said Gonzalez, articulating the invaluable contributions of role players.
The pessimist, in turn, would express concern over the Braves mustering just five combined runs (Friday/Saturday) against a Cubs pitching staff that holds middling rankings for ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and walks allowed.
For the month of May, Atlanta has scored a grand total of 18 runs. Ugh.
Left fielders don’t often nicked-up during rundown plays between 1st and 2nd base. But that’s exactly what happened in the fourth inning, as Upton earned the putout off a crazy 9-6-3-4-6-3-6-7 defensive play — which immediately followed a single from Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
After getting contact on Santana’s delivery, Rizzo was trying to wreak enough havoc to allow outfielder Ryan Kalish to score from 3rd base; but it was a futile exercise for Chicago, with Kalish standing pat on his bag and Rizzo shuttling back-and-forth before Justin Upton laid the final tag.
Two innings later, with one runner on 1st (Jason Heyward) and one out, Upton then got walloped by a Samardzija fastball near the hip area. The official report: A lower-back contusion … but it’ll be interesting to see how Upton feels on Monday — after likely getting Sunday off and then enduring a cross-country flight to San Francisco (three-game set with the Giants).
The typically calm Upton (1 for 2) was equal parts coy and concise when talking to the media about his injury (early exit), merely saying that "we’ll see how it goes" in the coming days.
At first blush, though, it looks like the Braves dodged a disabled-list bullet here — unlike reliever Jordan Walden (15-day DL — strained hamstring).
In six electric starts for the Braves, Santana (zero runs, five hits allowed, seven strikeouts vs. Chicago) boasts a 4-0 record, 2.01 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 43/9 K-BB rate. Adding to the degree of difficulty, the right-hander had to stay fresh throughout a 67-minute rain delay on Saturday — a storm that wrought short-term biblical rains onto Turner Field.
Not bad for an asset who wasn’t officially on the Braves’ radar until the end of February (not for a lack of talent, though).
"(Ervin) was terrific, better than terrific," said Gonzalez, while also revealing that his pitcher was 5-10 minutes away from being shelved for the night, if the rain delay had carried on longer. "We got (the) chance to win a series — that feels good."
Santana was similarly pleased with Saturday’s outing, conceding that he actually felt better after the rain delay (Innings 3-7), compared to the opening two frames.
"It was tough, because of the rain … but they made the right deicision and I was able to stay in the game," said Santana, who hadn’t pitched in nine days (May 1 against the Marlins — three runs allowed). "It was a great outing."
At this stage, the only likely All-Star locks for the National League, among starting pitchers, involve Miami’s Jose Fernandez (4-2, 2.44 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 70/13 K-BB), Cincy’s Johnny Cueto (3-2, 1.43 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 68/16 K-BB) and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright (6-2, 2.02 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 52/14 K-BB).
After that, it could be a free-for-all among a large cluster of top-notch power arms, including Santana, Teheran (2-2, 1.71 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 42/11 K-BB) and maybe Aaron Harang … if the veteran’s red-hot start in April carries over to summertime goodness.
Yes, this is a Braves-centric piece, but it’s hard not to feel great empathy for Samardzija (zero runs, two hits allowed, seven strikeouts vs. Atlanta), who lowered his seasonal ERA to an otherworldly 1.45 on this night — despite coming up empty-handed, victory-wise, on his eighth consecutive start.
The above statement is not a misprint. The Cubs ace has allowed just nine earned runs all season — over 56 innings — but has yet to earn a win at any point. The reasoning is simple: Chicago’s sad-sack offense has generated just 15 total runs in Samardzija’s eight outings (including Saturday) … easily the lowest tally of any other MLB pitcher with as many starts.
Which brings us to this: The Cubs’ front office, led by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, have done an admirable job of restocking the franchise with blue-chip prospects. But how longer will Chicago’s fan base have to endure the misery of watching Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and six other castoffs on a nightly basis?
When will the fruits of Epstein and Co.’s labor be recognized? When will future stars like Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Matt Szczur, Brett Jackson and Christian Villanueva finally see the light of day at Wrigley Field?
And furthermore, would the Cubs (12-21, last in NL Central) consider trading Samardzija (a free agent after the 2015 season) to another team — presumably a contender — while his trade value remains scalding hot? Or are they content with riding out another 15 months of Samardzija’s greatness … even if that means another dozen or so 1-0 losses?