Three Cuts: Braves survive late rally to beat Mets

Outfielder Justin Upton (left) and first baseman Freddie Freeman combined for six hits and four RBI to pace the Braves offense in a 7-5 win against the Mets on Saturday night.

Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Following another dominant outing from starter Ervin Santana and just enough offensive firepower, the Atlanta Braves held on to take down the New York Mets on Saturday night, winning 7-5 and guaranteeing themselves another series victory. Here are three observations from the NL East showdown:

The "It’s Early" slogan is beginning to carry less and less weight. Seventeen games into the season means the Braves are more than 10 percent of the way through their schedule — and Freeman, the team’s All-Star first baseman who finished fifth in the National MVP voting last season, is well on his way to a similar finish. Maybe even higher this time around.

Last season, Freeman was cruising just a little behind the hitting rates he would finish the 2013 campaign with — through 17 games, he was hitting .313/.380/.453 — but there were signs that he would be able to carry the offense at times (even if it was assumed that Justin Upton would be the MVP candidate of record in Atlanta). He was proving himself to be a very good hitter, one hitting coach Greg Walker lauded with praise during that spring training.

But those numbers pale in comparison to his post-contract-extension tear through NL pitchers right now.

Following another three-hit night, Freeman is on the short list of frontrunners for the NL MVP. That may be getting a little too far ahead of the process (the closest thing Freeman has come to a slump is going hitless on Opening Day), but there is not a player in baseball hitting the ball better than the Braves star. He’s hitting a ridiculous .413/.493/.746 with five home runs and more walks than strikeouts. Here’s where those numbers are likely to leave him on the major league leaderboard following the 7-5 win against the Mets:

Odds are, with the way the Braves (12-5) are playing (the late-inning bullpen scare on Saturday night notwithstanding) and the way Freeman continues to punish anything thrown his way — especially when it comes out of the hands of a Mets pitcher — Freeman isn’t going to be sneaking up on anybody this time around. Atlanta has seen excellent April production before (See: Upton, Justin), but if there’s a reason to doubt Freeman’s long-term candidacy, it’s not quite clear at the moment.

The fact that no other starting staff in baseball is producing numbers anywhere close to the Atlanta Braves’ patchwork group is not exactly breaking news anymore. The fact that Ervin Santana shut down the Mets offense — to the tune of seven innings, six hits allowed and seven strikeouts — is not exactly breaking news either, given New York’s recent offensive struggles. It’s mildly surprising that, behind Santana’s latest effort, the staff’s ERA dropped from an MLB-leading 1.47 ERA to an MLB-leading 1.46 ERA, but that’s still pretty much been the theme of the season so far.

What stood out on Saturday night, if you look past the stunning collective achievement, is how resilient Santana & Co. have had to be at times to reach that microscopic ERA.

The Mets jumped out of the gate against a shaky-looking Santana in the first inning, putting up a run following a leadoff walk to Eric Young Jr. and an RBI single from third baseman David Wright to take their first lead of the series. Giving up first-inning runs opens up the possibility for the wheels to fall off for a starting pitcher, but that has yet to happen through the first 17 games and Gonzalez has not had to turn to his bullpen too early and often — the team’s relievers have tossed just 40 innings this season, one of the lowest totals in baseball.

Santana didn’t relent, though. He held New York scoreless over his final six frames.

"This guy’s not having fun out there. He’s competing," Gonzalez said, referencing his veteran’s nonchalant appearance on the field.

Added Santana of his effort: "Location was a little bit off, but I was able to keep my team in the game and get the win. … Especially when they have a man on third and one out (in the seventh inning), it was a little bit difficult. But I made my pitches and got out of the jam."

Santana is not the only Braves pitcher who has found himself in such predicaments this season. Of the 22 runs the Braves starters have allowed this season, six have come in the opening frame.

If that doesn’t sound like an overwhelming number, consider that this starting staff has accounted for 111 combined innings, one of the highest totals in the majors, and 27 percent of their runs allowed have come in the first inning. That means that the likes of Santana and Alex Wood have likely had to rebound from some early troubles to shut down the given opposing lineup the rest of the way.

So far, so good.

There are more talented rotations out there and it’s a near certainty that this group will eventually regress to the mean, but this is an unreal run that Santana added on to against the Mets.

Craig Kimbrel’s sore shoulder was a point of interest this week for the Braves organization, and his return to the mound was anything but triumphant.

Gonzalez brought in Kimbrel nursing a four-run lead in the ninth inning, thanks in part to some insurance runs provided by Justin Upton, for his first in-game work since April 12 against the Nationals. The results were nearly disastrous. The best closer in the game couldn’t finish the inning, allowing two runs, three hits and a walk while logging just two outs — leaving bullpen mate Jordan Walden to work with a bases-loaded jam as he took a frustrated walk to the dugout.

It was his worst outing of the season by a wide margin, but given the time off, Gonzalez did not seem too concerned in the aftermath.

"He hadn’t pitched in seven days. For me it didn’t matter if the score was 1-0 or 100-1, we were gonna try to get him in the game today at some point to shake some of the rust off," Gonzalez said. "And also there at the end, you don’t want him throwing a 30-, 40-pitch inning either to get out the jam. We had, (pitching coach) Roger (McDowell) and I, talked about getting 23 to 25 pitches and get him out of there.

"The good thing is we got him on the mound and got him pitching."

As for Kimbrel’s visible frustration to being taken out of a game for the first time since 2011, the manager, again, was not going to look too far into the situation.

"At that point of the game, he doesn’t care about his arm. He doesn’t care about anything. He just wants to finish the outing," Gonzalez said. "That’s why Roger and I get the big bucks, to care of him. … Like all good athletes and all good competitors, they want the ball. And you’ve got to pry it out their hands."

Kimbrel wasn’t the only one who ran into trouble. Setup man David Carpenter has enjoyed one of the better starts to the season among this bullpen group, but the Mets touched him for two runs as well. They could never complete the rally, but it brings up a couple interesting questions, at least in the short-term: Was Kimbrel just shaking off some rust or is there lingering shoulder soreness? Who should the team be turning to in close ballgames before the ninth inning? Could this lead to an additional workload on the starting staff?

Prior to Saturday night’s outing, the bullpen had been just as strong as last season, ranking second in wins above replacement (0.9) and fielding-independent pitching behind only the Boston Red Sox. That could change, though, as its ERA jumped up to 5.18 following the ugly performance at Citi Field. A Walden-induced grounder to shortstop Andrelton Simmons put an end to the trouble, and the game, but the collective effort certainly won’t cause Gonzalez to take the ball out his starter’s hands any earlier next time around.