Three Cuts: Timely hitting helps Braves notch series win over A's

For the second time during their difficult 10-game homestand, the Atlanta Braves notched a series win. With their 4-3 win over the Oakland A's, the Braves kept pace in the NL East race.

Braves third baseman Chris Johnson notched three hits and two RBI in a 4-3 against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday night.

Dave Tulis / AP

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves celebrated their 100th anniversary of the 1914 "Miracle Braves" World Series win over the Athletics on Saturday night by guaranteeing themselves a series win over that very same franchise, one of the preeminent World Series favorites.

The A's owned the most wins in baseball entering the interleague series in Atlanta, but with the Braves, who had lost 12 of their previous 15 games entering the series, grinded out a 4-3 win. Here are three observations from the game:

1. Timely hitting prevented the Braves from dropping farther down the NL East standings

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was not reaching for hyperbole when he called Oakland starter Sonny Gray one of the American League's best pitchers during his postgame press conference. This had the makings of a pitching duel from the very beginning, with Gray, who ranked top-20 among all qualified AL pitchers in wins above replacement (2.7) entering the series, taking on Atlanta's own young right-hander Julio Teheran.

As Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said, "Sonny Gray, he's something special. That curveball of his is not fun to face as a hitter." These types of matchups have too often gone poorly for Atlanta this season.

Teheran proved just a tad more capable of keeping runs off the board in the early going, blanking the A's through the first five innings while the Braves tagged Gray for two runs in the first, one in the fourth and another in the sixth. The Braves did not get a single run from the long ball: each run was driven in off a timely hit with some quality base-running.

Freeman got the ball rolling with a first-inning double to score rookie Phil Gosselin from first. Chris Johnson followed with a bloop RBI single with two outs. The final two runs came in off singles from Johnson and shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The A's pressed with two homers, but could never close the gap. The Braves have been a middle-of-the-pack offensive club with runners in scoring position, holding a weighted on-base average of .310, but the fact that they could push runners through -- or even have runners in position -- against a quality pitcher was a good sign.

"We're a pretty good club," Gonzalez said. "The last three or four days we've been swinging the bats and getting some hits in big outs and two-out RBIs and moving runners and the pitching, the pitching's been pretty darn good all season. That keeps us in ballgame. We won the series, but I think when you come out tomorrow you get a little greedy."

With the win, the Braves guaranteed themselves at least a .500 record in the most difficult home stretch of the season, but Gonzalez is correct: It's time to start aiming higher. Despite the big win against the American League powerhouse, the Braves made up zero ground in the NL East standings as the division-leading Washington Nationals erased a three-run deficit in the eighth and ninth innings to beat the Pirates on Saturday.

The division gap stands at six games.

The Braves entered the game with just 25 percent odds to make the postseason, and just 4.4 percent odds to take the division. Those divisional odds, with one fewer game on the slate, aren't going anywhere. San Francisco winning doesn't help their cause, but the Cardinals' loss to San Diego only tightens the wildcard race moving forward (Braves are 1 1/2 games back). But, really, the success of this series and this homestand and the remainder of this playoff push rested on and rests with the Braves' ability to play better baseball. If that doesn't happen, postseason odds and percentages go down the drain.

For a two-game sample size against the Oakland A's, the Braves have looked like a playoff-contending club. They'll need to look like it for the better part of the next 39 games to stay in the hunt.

"We know we're not out of this thing, we just got 39 (games left) now," Freeman said. "We've been swinging the bats well for the last couple of games and hopefully that's a sign for more things to come. If we swinging the bats we are and pitching the way we are, we might be there at the end."

2. The left side of the Braves' infield delivered at the plate

It hasn't always been the smoothest of sailing for Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons this season, for different reasons.

On one hand, Johnson has been streaky at best at the plate, though he hit a season high note in June and July with back-to-back months of 110-plus weighted runs created. And while his offense comes and goes, he's been a liability on the defensive end, ranking fifth-worst among all MLB third basemen with negative-13 defensive runs saved. All told, Johnson's value has hovered just above replacement level throughout the season.

On the other hand there's Simmons, who continues to provide value as a Gold Glove-quality player at a premium position but whose bat has taken a few steps back in Year 3. He's hitting just .254/.300/.342 for 79 weighted runs created this season. The batting average and on-base percentage have actually improved since his breakout '13 season, but the power numbers have dropped off (five homers, down from 11 entering August last year) as has his overall value. Without a significant improvement over the next 39 games, this will go down as his worst season to date.

That wasn't the case for either Braves player on Saturday night, though. Both came through in big situations and gave glimpses of how this Atlanta lineup can produce when the back half of the lineup is clicking, like it was for the better part of last season.

Simmons and Johnson combined to hit 5 for 8 with three RBI, much of that damage helping to chase Gray from the game. For Simmons, it was the fourth RBI in the three games he's played since returning from an ankle injury -- he had just 36 through his first 107 games of the year. Johnson was in the middle of a pretty poor August, but a 3 for 4 night with two runs driven in helps his cause.

This isn't going to be breaking news, but Johnson and Simmons could be the difference-makers for the Atlanta lineup over the final stretch of the season. Other than B.J. Upton, who is producing too close to 2013 levels for comfort, Simmons and Johnson own the worst offensive numbers to date among the everyday position players. The other five names -- Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward and Tommy La Stella -- may not be Silver Slugger candidates, but they each own a 100-plus wRC.

When Simmons and Johnson give Gonzalez this much help, particularly against good pitching, it makes a big difference.

3. Julio Teheran got the win, but did not end his August funk

There was nothing particularly wrong with Julio Teheran's start when looking at the scoreboard. He held the winningest team in baseball to two runs through six innings of work. In layman's terms, that's considered a quality start, and pitchers get mounds of credit for those things all the time. In turn, Teheran should get credit for keeping runs off the board and once again unleashing his lethal pickoff move (that the Athletics questioned as a balk).

Overall, not a terrible night.

"You kind of expect that every single time he's goes out there now, especially this year. He gives us six, seven, eight innings every single time he goes out there, it seems like three runs or less. That's what he expects of himself," Freeman said. "It's almost like when he gives up some runs, it's like, 'Whoa, they were able to hit him that time.'"

Still, Teheran hasn't been at his best since going toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw on July 31.

While Teheran held the lead against the A's, he also walked three batters while striking out just one. It was just the fourth time in his career that he's struck out fewer than two batters in a game. That's a trend that's held this month -- strikeouts are down, walks are up. His fielding-independent pitching scores have suffered because of it, exceeding an expected FIP of 4.13 in each of his past three starts (his career rate is 3.76).

Of course, the results aren't always so divergent. He allowed 11 earned runs in his previous two starts against the Mariners and Dodgers, so the Braves will certainly take the result. However, he's only notched 12 Ks in that span. Gonzalez pointed to the Athletics' strong approach at the plate as to why Teheran ran into some trouble, including a high pitch count relatively early on.

"Those guys over there, they don't give any at-bats away. They battle you, at least the last couple of days. And I think that's why they do what they do," Gonzalez said. "They grind out at-bats and next thing your starter's in the sixth inning with almost 100 pitches, you know? Last night, the same thing."

Teheran is playing with fire when he walks three times as many batters as he fans. That stuff catches up to a pitcher.

And while he's not a strikeout king by any means (7.79 per nine innings this season), he's capable of more.

"I really wanted to throw a scoreless (game). I got a little bit squeezed today, but that's part of the game, it's something that I don't want to think about," Teheran said. " ... We're trying to come back from the bad situation that (we're in). We're doing good, we're just trying to come back."