ATLANTA — The Braves extended their winning streak to 10 games Tuesday night against the Royals, further securing the best record in baseball, with a 6-3 power clinic. Here are three observations from Turner Field:
1. The Braves offense can come alive anytime, anywhere
Looking out into the Turner Field landscape in the top of the seventh inning, the majority of the seats were filled and starting pitcher Kris Medlen was potentially on the hook for the loss, staring down a Royals lineup that held a 2-1 lead. That changed within minutes.
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Juan Francisco, who had already hit one solo home run Tuesday, quickly got Medlen out of his undeserved jam. Atlanta’s starting third baseman on the night — his platoon mate, Chris Johnson, manned first base in Freddie Freeman’s absence — belted a towering shot to straightaway center field to tie the game and put the energy back into the ballpark. It was his first multi-home run game. He now has three homers this season, trailing Justin Upton (8) and Evan Gattis (4) for the team lead.
“When he swings at good pitches, (Juan) is dangerous,” Johnson said.
And the energy would not escape.
Following the one-run, game-tying seventh inning, the Braves’ lineup entered its half of the eighth with the top of the order on deck. After a groundout by leadoff hitter B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward took Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera to left. Two pitches later, Justin Upton left the yard to become the first Braves player to notch eight homers in his first 13 games of a season. For an encore the Royals would never recover from, Dan Uggla hit his third home run of the season.
That’s right: Three home runs in a matter of five minutes.
That’s the potency of Atlanta’s lineup in 2013, with or without the RBI-generating Freeman.
“These runs don’t come too often,” Dan Uggla said, “and you’ve got to ride it as long as you can ride it. It’s definitely a lot of fun. We’re playing good baseball. We’re coming from behind. We’re battling. We’re still starting the process of figuring it out as a collective team, too.”
At 12-1, the Braves are on pace to match or beat their best start since 1994 — a 13-1 start behind the likes of Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux, David Justice and Tom Glavine. With an offense that has scored six or more runs seven times already this season, don’t expect a complete drop off anytime soon.
2. Kris Medlen is not in 2012 form, but he’s certainly close
Following a historic run through the second half of last season, it is still tough to grasp that Medlen, of all people, still owns the Braves’ only loss thus far. All the same, he’s been the No. 1 type of pitcher through his first three starts of the season, certainly better than a 1-1 record might suggest.
Medlen has allowed just three earned runs in 19 innings of work (1.42 ERA), bringing him dangerously close to his 2012 numbers that set baseball statisticians on fire. He looks dialed in on the mound. His offense was the headline-grabbing story of the night, but it was Medlen’s consistent control over the Royals’ lineup that kept Atlanta competitive from the first to the seventh.
The right-hander handed the ball over after pitching seven innings, allowing one earned run on six hits while striking out five. One run came off a single by former Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, while the other came from a solo home run by none other than Chris Getz. Repeat: Chris Getz.
Yes, the same Chris Getz that had two career home runs entering Wednesday’s game. That Chris Getz.
“If I had to pick a guy that was gonna take me deep, it probably wouldn’t have been him,” Medlen said with a laugh.
Join the club.
(Strangest trivia note from the game: Getz’s last home run before Wednesday night came all the way back in 2009. And just who was the pitcher he took deep that game? Jeremy Guthrie, who was Kansas City’s starting pitcher against the Braves. Small world. As Guthrie said after the game, “I’m off the hook.” Guess that means you’re on it, Kris. See you in 2017.)
One red flag entering the Royals game was Medlen’s low strikeout rate — yes, it is just two games, but still — which were less than half of his career average.
His five strikeouts were far from dominant Wednesday, but they were right at his career rate (6.85 per nine innings) and when mixed in with low walk numbers can spell trouble for any opponent on any given night.
“I had a feeling they were gonna be some free-swingers,” Medlen said.
Medlen, much like the rest of the Braves pitching staff, looks just fine early on.
3. Third base does not look like the missing link at all
Whether it is Francisco or Chris Johnson filling what many thought would be the Braves’ most glaring hole in 2013, the hot corner is delivering results. Francisco’s two-shot display obviously loomed largest on this occasion, but, in some ways, that’s been par for the course.
Though 13 games, Braves’ third basemen have hit .339 with five home runs and 10 RBI. Johnson owns the highest batting average on the team (.415). Francisco is settling into a powerful groove. And for a lineup that, at least on paper, resembles a patchwork quilt — think back three months ago and imagine an infield consisting of Johnson, Francisco and Evan Gattis — the lesser-known names are coming through.
Yes, the Uptons have been the biggest boost.
Yes, Gattis is a national cult hero by now.
Yes, the pitching staff has been ridiculous.
But the depth of this Braves team has shown its capabilities during its hot start, the third base position vacated by Chipper not withstanding. The Nos. 6 through 8 hitters went 5-for-11 against the Royals Wednesday night. Overall, that portion of the lineup is hitting .356 on the year. (Challenge: Find another team in baseball with that level of production through that portion of the lineup. I’ll wait.)
Again, it is a small sample size. Johnson and Francisco have not looked like stop-gaps. Instead, they look just like starters on a World Series contender.