Three Cuts: Braves plate 11, blast past Pirates

Aaron Harang got 11 runs of support and notched his 10th win of the season on Tuesday as the Atlanta Braves beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 11-3.

Keith Srakocic

As an encore to Monday’s win where the team scored seven runs on 15 hits, the Atlanta Braves followed on Tuesday with 11 runs on 14 hits to take Game 2 of the series in Pittsburgh against the Pirates.

Five batters–Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and B.J. Upton–notched two hits, and every Braves starter, outside pitcher Aaron Harang, crossed the plate at least once.

Harang didn’t have to cross the plate; he kept the Pirates at bay with well-located pitches, and lasted a season high 8 1/3 innings. He gave up three runs on nine hits, but some of that damage came in the ninth inning (one run and three hits) when he was fatigued, yet trying to save the bullpen by pitching a complete game.

Here are three observations from Tuesday’s win, the fifth in a row for Atlanta:

Upton played in his 1,000th career game on Tuesday, and did something he’d only done four other times during his eight-year career.

A three-run bomb in the third inning off Francisco Liriano, combined with a two-run single in the fifth inning gave Upton five RBI in the game. He’d logged at least five RBI in a game four times prior– twice for the Braves in 2013, and twice for the Arizona Diamondbacks, once in 2009 and again in 2011. He was one RBI shy of his career high of six.

His 2-for-4 night also marked the 10th consecutive game he’d hit safely. Over that span, Upton is 13 for 34 (.382) with two doubles, four home runs and 14 RBI. For the season he’s belted 24 home runs and plated 80 runs, while going 126 for 439 (.287). Had his first eight games not been a disaster, his numbers would be even loftier.

In 25 games in March and April to start the season, Upton hit .326 with eight home runs and 18 RBI. April seems like Upton’s favorite month to swing a bat, but his first eight games were lacking. He went 6 for 30 (.200) with 11 strikeouts and three walks to start the season.

Something sparked from that point, because since he’s 120 for 409 (.293) with 119 strikeouts and 49 walks.

One of the bigger statistical differences is Upton’s strikeout-to-walk ratio. Entering Tuesday’s game, Upton was ninth in the league with 130 strikeouts. He’s going to whiff often, but generate lots of runs through his power numbers. But in his first eight games he was too much of a free-swinger.

Upton went from a 3.66 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first eight games to a 2.43 in the 112 games since. That’s an amazing difference, and one reason why pitchers have to come into the strike zone more regularly. Because Upton has shown he’ll take a walk, pitchers have to put more pitches in the strike zone.

While Upton ranked 10th in home runs in the majors entering Tuesday, he was sixth in walks among those 10 home run hitters.

During his 10-game hitting streak, Upton has struck out nine times and taken seven bases on balls. That’s a 1.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a guarantee pitchers won’t be able to pitch around him any time soon.

The last time Harang registered a win was on July 10 against the New York Mets. There were six starts in between that victory and Tuesday’s.

While likely frustrated to pitch well without a win–during four of Harang’s starts in that six-game stretch he allowed two runs or fewer–he logged win No. 10 by chewing up a number of innings, and doing so quickly.

Harang blew through the first two innings without allowing a runner on base, while he threw 28 pitches. He then became more efficient, throwing 44 pitches over the next four innings and never facing more than five batters in any one inning.

Through six innings Harang had allowed just six hits and two runs. At 36, he wasn’t blowing pitches by anyone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t effective.

"He navigates through lineups and doesn’t give you anything good to hit in the middle of the plate," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "When he gets his breaking ball over, it’s good for us."

What was good for Harang was the run support.

The 11 runs Atlanta scored was the highest output the bats had provided for Harang in 2014. In fact, in the six games since his last win, Atlanta only scored 15 runs combined when Harang pitched. It’s easy to see why it took so long to notch No. 10.

That 10th win marks Harang’s first 10-win season since 2012, and the seventh in his 13-year career.

Atlanta opened this series in Pittsburgh with a seven-run, 15-hit victory on Monday. Another win followed on Tuesday after the Braves plated 11 on 14 hits.

You don’t need to be strong at math to see that 18 runs and 29 hits in two games is an easy recipe for two wins. But it isn’t just playing against the flailing Pirates that has sparked Braves’ bats; the scoring bombardment began against Oakland.

Next Up: Braves at Pirates

In the previous series, the Braves scored 15 runs against the A’s, and swept the best team in baseball at Turner Field.

If you combine those 15 runs against Oakland in three games with the 18 in Pittsburgh, you get 33. That number is important to the Braves because it marks the third best five-game scoring output of the season.

From April 10-14, and again from July 12-20 (the All-Star break pushed these games apart), Atlanta scored a combined 36 runs over five games. The Braves were 4-1 in both streaks. The Braves had three fewer runs in this five-game span, but won all five.

The Braves have had trouble scoring runs all season. But there’s 36 games left on the schedule, and this team is suddenly finding ways to round the bases with regularity. And the Braves have been doing it against good teams like Oakland, and on the road in Pittsburgh.

Atlanta is still six games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East after they too won on Tuesday. But the Wild Card race is tightening with all the runs, and wins, Atlanta is piling on.