ATLANTA — Behind the lineup’s top two power bats, the Atlanta Braves gave the Rockies very little room for error on Sunday evening, winning 7-0 in one of the team’s best all-around efforts this season. The Braves now own a 28-21 overall record, and the gap in the National League East continues to widen, little by little. Here are three observations from the game:
Safe to say Evan Gattis has gotten his strength back. The Braves catcher was relegated to the bench earlier in the week due to illness, missing four straight games while suffering through viral symptoms that led to weight loss. He had difficulty eating during the worst stretch of the illness, and even after he returned to batting practice, manager Fredi Gonzalez held him out of the lineup until his second-year standout felt good to go.
Gattis returned to the lineup on Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Rockies, going 0 for 3 with a walk, but he looked as good as ever in the three-game series finale: belting his ninth and 10th home runs of the season.
"Got my strength back," Gattis said after the shutout win. "Or lucky. Whatever."
It was Gattis’s third multi-homer game of his short career — his two previous outings both came against the Phillies, hitting two off starter Cole Hamels last September and then two more last month against Roberto Hernandez and B.J. Rosenberg.
This latest edition of Gattis’s power potential came courtesy of Rockies starter Franklin Morales, who was chased from the game in the fifth inning after allowing five runs on five hits and three walks. And while his first homer of the day was nearly robbed at the wall by center fielder Charlie Blackmon, Gattis left no doubt on No. 2 — Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez barely shuffled his feet as the ball sailed into the seats.
He now leads all MLB catchers in home runs, and the race isn’t really a tight one right now.
The next-closest guys are Giants star Buster Posey (seven) and a former Braves standout, Yankees backstop Brian McCann (seven).
What’s most impressive about his power surge, though, is that Gattis has needed so few opportunities to remain in the upper echelon of baseball’s home run leaders. With only 139 plate appearances, he’s the fastest player to reach double-digit long balls in 2014. Mark Reynolds (Brewers), Mark Teixeira (Yankees), Brandon Belt (Giants), Mike Olt (Cubs) and Colby Rasmus (Blue Jays) are in the ballpark, but no one has taken pitchers deep at the rate of Evan Gattis this season. And considering he belted 21 home runs in 382 chances in his rookie campaign (a "qualified" season is right around 500 plate appearances), this seems more like a trend than a fast start.
Gattis is now hitting .248/.295/.527 with 21 RBI and 124 weighted runs created (wRC+), the third-best mark in Atlanta’s lineup behind Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman, respectively.
"There’s no reason for him to struggle, really. And I say that because everybody struggles, doesn’t matter how good of a hitter you are, but his swing is short and quick and he’s so strong that sometimes he’s the one that gets himself out," Gonzalez said. "There’s not very many moving parts to (his swing). Everybody struggles, but he can regain it that quickly."
With Justin Upton and Chris Johnson adding home runs of their own later on, the Braves now have 50 total this season — pushing their way back near top-10 territory on MLB’s power list. That worked out for them pretty well last season. The Braves are now 6-0 when hitting three or more homers this season, a number that speaks to both this offense’s heavy use of the long ball and the team’s pitching performance to date. Speaking of which …
Julio Teheran’s ERA is currently in free fall. The good kind.
After recording his second career shutout in his previous start — becoming the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Greg Maddux to post multiple shutouts in a single season — Teheran picked up where he left off, throwing six scoreless innings against a lethal Rockies lineup. He threw 93 pitches, but Gonzalez and his staff, barring a perfect game or no-hitter, were going to pull him early no matter what the situation. He left the game with a 5-0 lead and his fourth win of 2014.
The outing dropped his ERA down to 1.77, second-best among all qualified MLB starters behind (unfortunate) Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija.
"You know what? We put him in a bad spot there in the (second inning), where we didn’t turn that double play, that Tyler (Pastornicky) made the error. And he wiggled out of it. I thought he wasn’t going to be able to cover that up, but he did," Gonzalez said. "He settled in. He did a fantastic job. After the complete game last time out, we wanted to keep him right there where he was today. We don’t wanna keep running him out there and keep throwing pitches and innings on him this early in the season.
"That worked out perfectly, couldn’t ask for a better outing out of him."
Teheran allowed just four hits and one walk while striking out seven; it was one of his most complete starts of the year, despite any lingering fatigue from his last start going 128 pitches deep.
His 3.64 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) dropped down to a career-best rate and, considering the caliber of hitters he worked around on Sunday, his quality performances just keep getting more impressive.
"Well, this time I gotta work a little bit harder, because I got just five days to rest (after throwing 128 pitches against Milwaukee). And that’s what I did: just rest and rest my arm and just concentrate. I knew that this time — that today I wasn’t going that long like I did the last game. I just tried to go out there, make pitches and tried to get through the most innings that I can."
Teheran’s night could have easily gone the other way, too. He ran into trouble in some pretty bad spots, as Gonzalez mentioned, none worse than the first inning, when the first two batters — Blackmon and Michael Cuddyer — reached base to set up Colorado’s dangerous middle of the order: NL MVP frontrunner Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Justin Morneau. There are 30 home runs and 97 RBI sprinkled in that mix this season. But Teheran fought out of the jam: inducing Tulowitzki and Gonzalez into pop ups and striking out Morneau.
That trend would carry throughout the ballgame. Three times the Rockies put two runners on against the Braves right-hander, and three times he came out unscathed.
"I was kinda … not sure, because of the workload we put on him the start before and then facing this lineup," Gonzalez said. "I thought that we put him behind the 8-ball. But he got out of it."
Teheran wasn’t alone on the Braves’ pitching staff in that sense.
Against an offense that leads the majors with more than five runs per game, Braves pitchers have found plenty of success, giving up just five runs in the entire series. Thanks in large part to their collective effort, the Braves’ lead in the NL East climbed up to three games.
The Braves entered Sunday’s game with an MLB-best 136 OPS+ and 139 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers. In short, they have absolutely raked against southpaws. Unfortunately for Rockies starter Franklin Morales, in this scenario, he throws with his left hand.
Atlanta now owns a .375 on-base percentage with 18 home runs in 379 plate appearances against lefties this season.
Considering his lefty splits entering the series finale (297 wRC+) — not to mention his absurd numbers playing at Turner Field — perhaps there was little surprise that Justin Upton left the yard against Morales. Gattis, Chris Johnson, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton are also hitting better in such situations.
(Of course, the Braves also rank among the league’s 10 worst teams against righties. So there’s room for improvement.)
All the same, Sunday’s series-winning performance against Colorado gave Atlanta just its sixth game this season hitting the seven-run mark.
But if Gonzalez is looking for a magic number: the Braves are 16-0 when scoring five or more runs.