Three Cuts: Braves stage comeback win against struggling Mets
JUL 01, 2014 12:13a ET
ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves capitalized when the worst version of the New York Mets reared its ugly head during the eighth inning of Monday's NL East meeting, walking away with a come-from-behind 5-3 win. The Mets held the lead from the very first at-bat of the game until that decisive and error-ridden late-game stretch of play, and the Braves -- along with their slight lead in the divisional standings -- were the beneficiaries on this occasion. Here are three observations from the game:
1. The run-of-the-mill Mets implosion leaves the Braves a half-game up in the standings
Braves starting pitcher Alex Wood meant it as a compliment to his lineup, one which avoided strikeouts at a rare rate and continued to draw walks and put the ball in play throughout the game, but it came across as a young players' recognition of the New York Mets' place in baseball right now.
"It's one of those things where you sit there," Wood said, "and you're like, 'It's a matter of time. It's a matter of time.'"
He was right. On this night, for some reason, the Mets' implosion was coming.
New York wasted little time setting the tone at Turner Field on Monday night. Leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson, who has improved month-to-month since signing with the Mets during the offseason, planted a ball in the outfield seats in the game's field at-bat. They would tack on two more runs in following two innings, taking what can be, at times, a commanding lead against one of the lowest-scoring offense in baseball. At the end of seven, Atlanta had only mustered one run despite putting men on-base throughout -- not that the scenario discouraged the Braves clubhouse. After all, there's always that chance.
"Two runs at home? I like our chances there," outfielder Jason Heyward said.
So the Braves -- and the Mets fielders, to varying degrees -- went to work in the eighth inning. Following back-to-back singles by Heyward and fellow outfielder Justin Upton, the Mets lended their first helping hand: a fielding error by reliever Jeurys Familia. Just like that, bases loaded. Rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella stepped into the box and laced an 0-1 sinker back into center field to tie the ballgame at 3-3. It probably should have gone to extras at that. But after another rookie, catcher Christian Bethancourt, grounded into a force play, pinch hitter Ryan Doumit stepped in.
Doumit drew two consecutive strikes to quickly fall behind 0-2, much to the chagrin of the home crowd and manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was seen yelling about the second strike call. Doumit bounced back, though, drawing what turned out to be an eight-pitch walk to re-load the bases. With two outs, shortstop Andrelton Simmons hit a grounder to third that should have been out No. 3. Mets third baseman Eric Campbell bobbled it and a runner scored. By the time first baseman Freddie Freeman was walked with the bases loaded to push it to the final 5-3 score, Turner Field was vibrating and the Mets were shellshocked.
"We earned that one," Heyward said. "We were able to chip one out on him that (fifth) inning. B.J. (Upton) led off with a knock and Andrelton moved him over to third. Going into that eighth inning, I was just saying, 'I hope we can get one here and in the ninth inning put some more pressure on them.' Came away with four. Some great ABs."
Added Gonzalez: "We were never giving up. We never gave any at-bats away. Perfect example of putting the ball in play, you put the ball in play funny things happen. Bad hops, people have to make plays. And today we did that."
With the crucial win, the Braves are now 7-1 on this 19-game stretch of games against sub-.500 teams -- basically, doing exactly what good teams do, even if it takes a helping hand (or four) from the opponents themselves. Also of note following the win, the Braves now own a winning record against each of their NL East opponents this season:
Considering the Braves are just 23-24 in non-divison games, those records above are not only the reason they hold a slight edge in the NL East race but also why they are even considered a viable playoff team. They'll need to extend that trend into the second half while playing better against the rest of the crowd if they want to be seen as a contender.
"With the way that the division's set up where you play everybody 18 times, you gotta win the division," Gonzalez said. "That's the way it's set up. And you gotta play good against your division rivals. Every game, everybody's so bunched up that you've gotta win series. You've gotta win every single game that you can in your division."
2. The Mets got to Alex Wood early, then the door shut
For the third time in two seasons, Braves lefty Alex Wood faced off against a young Mets ace. The first instance came in his first career MLB start last season, a doubleheader showdown with then-NL Cy Young candidate Matt Harvey. Partly due to stamina concerns, Wood last only three spotty innings before being pulled after allowing one run on two hits and three walks. Harvey, meanwhile, pitched a 13-strikeout gem for the win.
The past two outings, if we're not including Jonathan Niese on this list of top-line starters, have come against fellow second-year major leaguer Zack Wheeler, a former superstar prospect who is in the middle of a so-so season on a bad team. Wheeler, though not particularly sharp himself, has gotten the better of Wood, one of the National League's most promising 25-and-under arms in his own right, on the scoreboard both times. Wood didn't help his cause much in the early going.
Mets batters pelted Wood for six hits and a walk through the first three innings, scoring a run in each frame and generally making life uncomfortable for the 23-year-old southpaw. To his credit, he limited damage and kept the game in the game, which is not a simple task given the inconsistency of this Atlanta lineup. By the end of his night, he had thrown three straight scoreless innings and left the game with six innings in the books.
"Any starting pitcher will tell you those are the toughest nights because you're having to work really early on," said Wood, who struck out seven Mets batters on the night. "You're not typically used to having to work that hard and throw that many pitches that early, but I battled through it, figured a few things out, me and Bethancourt got on the same page and we were able to go through six. ... We got going there a little bit. I was just trying to get through five or six and keep it at 3-0, because with our ball club that's striking distanced for us."
Wood said that a key difference from his first three innings to his final three innings was his tempo. After meeting with Bethancourt during the third inning -- and talking to pitching coach Roger McDowell in the dugout -- Wood started going at hitters at a faster rate. The Mets went hitless and struck out five times over that stretch. In the meantime, Wheeler walked five and struck out four through 6 1/3 innings, lowering his ERA while playing with fire.
"I thought Woody's outing was the key," Gonzalez said. "Very easily he could have given up a bunch of crooked numbers and he didn't. He gave us six innings and only gave the other team three runs and kept us hanging around."
3. The B.J. Upton Experiment at leadoff is yielding some results
For the seventh time in the past eight games, Gonzalez ran his talented but underproducing center fielder out as his No. 1 hitter. The results have been better than the usual.
B.J. Upton is now riding a seven-game hitting streak since moving into the leadoff role, which is tied for his longest such streak in a Braves uniform (April 25-May 3).
Though his average doesn't reflect it -- bumping up from .202 to .209 during the streak on account of six games coming on single-hit nights (though Monday night's second hit, an infield roller that Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy mishandled, was debatable at best) -- Gonzalez praised Upton during pregame media session for making a difference in every single ballgame since he's moved to the top. I've been critical of Upton's continued placement in the Nos. 1 and 2 holes despite hitting just .209/.276/.341 for 74 weighted runs created (post-hitting streak), but it's somewhat justifiable for Gonzalez continuing to try and eke production from Upton any way he can -- and if he's getting the most out of him at the top, then there's some value there.
It's not top-grade value, however.
Since moving into the leadoff spot, Upton has reached base more than once in a game just twice. Even with the scorer's assist on Monday, he's hitting just .267 with an on-base percentage of .313. That's not bad, especially given his brief track record since signing his five-year deal with Atlanta, but the batting order still doesn't maximize available resources. Jason Heyward, even when compared to a guy that has yet to go hitless at the No. 1 spot, still carried an OBP that was 21 points better. All that being said, any manager will take his leadoff hitter reaching base three times in a game, as Upton did on Monday, so until this hitting streak is broken up and there's some semblance of decline do not expect Upton to be moved.
He's playing well and, for what it's worth, the Braves are now 6-1 with him at the top of the order. It's not the move I would have made, but it may turn out to be one that pays off in the long run.