Three Cuts: Braves top Nats on J. Upton’s 10th-inning HR
ATLANTA — Here are three things we learned from the Braves’ 3-2 victory over the Nationals, extending Atlanta’s head-to-head hold over Washington to 11-3:
1. Justin Upton already has a Turner Field ritual for celebrating game-winning homers
On April 6, just his fifth game in a Braves uniform, Upton belted a walk-off homer in the 9th to lift his team to an improbable 6-5 victory over the Cubs. (Atlanta trailed 5-1 in the eighth inning.)
Fast forward to Friday, as Upton (two hits, one run, one RBI) cracked Nats reliever Ian Krol’s 2-2 delivery over the left-center wall in the 10th inning, clinching his club’s third straight win.
“I had faced (Krol) a few times in (Washington),” recalled Upton of his previous encounters against the southpaw during the Aug. 5-7 series. “In that situation, you’re looking for a strike and to get on base.”
In hindsight, it was a signature shot for the 25-year-old slugger — who has a history of late-inning heroics against the Nats — even if neither Upton nor Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez originally believed it to be a homer.
“I wasn’t sure,” said Upton. “I was busting out of the box, hoping for three (bags) and definitely thinking two.”
Gonzalez said: “I didn’t think (the ball would) be out; I thought it’d be top of the wall, from my angle. But it carried enough, it carried enough.”
After the game-winning solo blast, as Upton bounced around the base paths, his happy teammates came to home plate, armed with a plastic bottle of water. As Upton approached the swarm, a small swath of water flashed right at him — eerily similar to the April 6 walk-off scene.
On that night, Justin and B.J. Upton became the first brothers in major league history to homer in the ninth inning of the same game. It was a wet, but joyous occasion for an Atlanta team that would rocket to a 12-1 start in early April.
Back to Friday. One inning prior to Upton’s smash, the Braves were in serious danger of falling behind the Nationals, after Adam LaRoche led off the 9th with a single against Craig Kimbrel.
A few pitches later, Washington catcher Wilson Ramos lined a shot up the middle for an apparent single, but second baseman Paul Janish snagged the ball while diving, rolled over on his butt and tossed an accurate, off-balance ball to Andrelton Simmons, who secured the force-out at second base.
It was a clutch play, especially after pinch-hitter Chad Tracy stroked a single on the ensuing at-bat, which would have produced a Washington go-ahead run. With a temporary reprieve, though, Kimbrel quickly settled down and got the remaining two outs, amid little drama.
Gonzalez marveled at Janish’s fielding prowess on that game-saving force-out, beaming that Janish “knows his role, he’s professional.”
The short-term occupancy at second base is the dual result of Dan Uggla landing on the 15-day DL (LASIK surgery), and Tyler Pastornicky being sidelined for the season, due to injury (ACL tear).
2. Bryce Harper continues to be a lightning-rod of angst for Atlanta fans … and a magnet for Braves pitches
Harper was plunked twice on Friday, once from starter Alex Wood (nine strikeouts, one run allowed over 6.1 innings) and then reliever Luis Avilan (eighth inning).
For the latter, Avilan surrendered a double, hit-by-pitch and Jayson Werth single — all with two outs — enabling the Nationals to deadlock the score at 2-all.
With Ryan Zimmerman on second and the Turner Field crowd whipped into a frenzied mix of loud cheers and booming jeers (directed toward Harper), Avilan struck the 20-year-old phenom in the back, momentarily forcing Harper to double over in pain.
“We got a little sideways in the eighth inning,” said Gonzalez, referring to the double-HBP-single sequence.
Regarding Harper, Gonzalez was both empathetic and diplomatic.
“You’re not going to (intentionally) hit Harper, the (potential) winning run, lefty vs. lefty, with two outs. That’s ridiculous,” reasoned Gonzalez. “He’s upset with it, and I don’t blame him — nobody likes to get hit — but it wasn’t intentional. It’s not even close.”
Avilan echoed his skipper’s sentiment.
“God, I hope (Harper) doesn’t think I did it on purpose,” said Avilan, who has only hit three batters all season. “We (were leading) 2-1, and I didn’t want to put the winning run on first. I feel bad … it definitely wasn’t on purpose.”
There was no subsequent fallout from the hit-by-pitch, fight-wise, as Harper calmly took his base and openly chatted with Freddie Freeman during the pitching change (Avilan to Luis Ayala).
Werth then tied the score with that RBI single.
For the season, Harper has been hit by four pitches, with three coming against the Braves — including the Aug. 6 dustup with Atlanta’s Julio Teheran.
On that night, Harper and Teheran exchanged terse words after the HBP, thus riling up the crowd at Nationals Park and prompting both bullpens to join the standoff during the stoppage of play.
It even spawned a short-lived brouhaha between the teams’ official Twitter accounts during/after the game — drawing national attention.
Social-media hijinks aside, Harper (1 for 2 on Friday) has a knack for getting under the skin of Braves fans, whether he’s imitating Chipper Jones after home runs or generally bringing a Pete Rose-esque intensity to every on-field act, no matter how trivial.
From a long-term perspective, Harper’s presence could help shape Braves-Nationals into baseball’s best rivalry.
3. The day will come when the Braves and Nationals scratch and claw for the NL East title on the season’s final day … but it won’t be this year
With a 15 1/2-game lead over the second-place Nationals (59-62), it would take a substantial plunge for the Braves to fall short of capturing their 15th division crown since 1991 — and first since 2005.
“That’s a storybook win,” said Wood. “That’s as good as it gets there.”
Entering the three-game set, Washington was ostensibly in sweep-or-else mode, knowing it had only six remaining shots at cutting into Atlanta’s sizable lead. Counting Friday’s loss, the Nationals now must go on a 33-8 tear to finish at 92 victories.
And within that hypothetical, the Braves (75-47) would have to go 17-23 to complete the implausible tie, thus creating a (likely) one-game playoff for the East title.
Why so implausible, you ask? Let us count thee ways:
**For the season, the Braves have a cumulative ERA of 2.63 against the NL East (thank you for the nugget, Braves TV crew).
**Counting Wood, Brandon Beachy and Paul Maholm, Atlanta has the luxury of riding a formidable six-man rotation for the next few weeks.
**Since May 9, the incomparable Kimbrel has allowed just one run over 35 innings. His tallies during that span: 28 saves, 0.26 ERA and 0.88 WHIP.
**The Nationals, who kicked off a 10-game road swing on Friday (Braves, Cubs, Royals), have another 10-game trip in early September (Phillies, Marlins, Mets).
**For the month of August, the Braves pitchers have the following tallies: 12-2, 2.40 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 113/27 K-BB rate.
**In the same span, Heyward (.404 batting average, .466 on-base percentage, 1.100 OPS) and Justin Upton (.389 batting, .476 OBP, 1.328) have carried the explosive Braves at the top of the order.
**Based on current records, the Braves will finish the season with 29 straight games against below-.500 clubs (Aug. 30-Sept. 29).