ATLANTA — Here are three things we learned from the Braves’ 5-1 victory over the Cubs, completing Atlanta’s series sweep.
It also marked Chicago’s only visit to Turner Field all season (thank expanded Interleague play for that scheduling quirk).
1. In the Braves’ case, there are no small heroes — just small parts
On Friday night, Mike Minor was the man of the hour, stifling the Cubs over 7 1/3 innings, striking out seven and walking none.
On Saturday, the Brothers Upton pulled off perhaps the sweetest sibling half-inning in MLB history, with B.J. blasting a homer to tie the score at 5 in the ninth . . . only to be, uh, upstaged by younger brother, Justin, who’s center-field moon shot capped the Braves’ absurd 6-5 win.
(As part of that, Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol lost his job as the team’s go-to closer.)
And then on Sunday, with Atlanta’s big-name hitters being tied up in knots by Chicago starter Jeff Samardzija (more on him later), backup shortstop Ramiro Pena broke open a nail-biter with a two-run single in the sixth inning, fueling Samardzija’s exit from the game.
For good measure, Atlanta starting pitcher Tim Hudson (seven strikeouts) was lights-out on Sunday, allowing just one measly run over 6 2/3 innings. To make up for that glaring mistake, he singled in a run in the Braves’ three-run surge in the sixth.
“I made some some pretty good pitches,” Hudson said. “(Catcher Evan) Gattis made me mix it up a bit. That was the first time we had ever worked together (in a live game), and things flowed pretty well.”
All in a weekend’s work for the Braves, who currently stand atop the National League composite standings, at 5-1. If anyone cares about such trivialities in early April.
It bears repeating this same team began the 2012 campaign at 0-4, before rallying for 94 victories and a wild-card berth.
“(We’re) a good club,” says manager Fredi Gonzalez. “Coming out of Spring Training, (I thought) ‘we have a good club there.’ Resilient bunch. One night, during this home stand (April 3 vs. Philly), we strike out 16, 17 times . . . but we find a way to win ball games.”
2. The Braves didn’t really skip a beat without Freddie Freeman or Andrelton Simmons in the lineup
One game does not a fortnight make, but Atlanta will probably be OK without Freeman (oblique strain) for the next 15 days (covering 12 games), thanks to the corner-infield versatility of Chris Johnson, whose crucial hits batsmen in the sixth set the stage for Pena’s game-breaking hit.
Obviously, Johnson would have preferred his own base knock during Atlanta’s big inning, but the HBP was just enough to push Samardzija off his game, knowing that — with the bases loaded and two out (and the Braves leading 2-1) — he had to bear down and throw strikes against Pena.
Which is exactly what happened . . . as Pena’s seeing-eye single just barely missed second baseman Alberto Gonzalez’s glove and brought in two Atlanta runs.
With no Freeman or Simmons, Gonzalez beamed, “we still put a pretty good team on the field, and that’s a sign of a good baseball team.”
In fact, “that’s going to be a challenge for me, over the course of the year,” continued Gonzalez, making sure “the bench guys are getting at-bats.”
Gonzalez figures Simmons will return for Atlanta’s series opener against Miami on Monday. But Pena (one run, two hits, two RBI) undoubtedly made the most of his cameo.
3. ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh would have loved Jeff Samardzija’s day against the Braves
Remember LaLoosh, the clueless, but immensely talented pitcher portrayed by actor Tim Robbins in the classic movie, Bull Durham?
Well, Samardzija brought a similar high-risk, high-reward act to Turner Field, striking out 13 batters (including Jason Heyward and Justin Upton six times), walking five, hitting one (Chris Johnson) . . . and then allowing three runs in the sixth inning (thanks to the free passes) — mushrooming his daily ERA and WHIP tallies to 6.35 and 1.41, respectively.
The numbers, on the whole, don’t look pretty; but Samardzija was in command for a large portion of this outing. In the first five innings, he struck out at least two in each stanza, and never faced more than five Braves.
But everything disintegrated in the sixth: After a Justin Upton punch-out, Samardzija walked Gattis, surrendered a line-drive hit to Juan Francisco, hit Johnson (although the Cubs disputed the HBP) and then gave up the defining two-run single from Pena.
Despite the late meltdown, Samardzija is still the Cubs’ best pitcher, with a chance to emerge as one of the National League’s most bankable aces, sooner than later.