Three Cuts: Braves sneak by Cardinals with ninth-inning rally
The Atlanta Braves broke away from their road losing ways by stealing the series finale from the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, rattling off two ninth-inning runs to walk out of Busch Stadium with a 6-5 win. It was just their second road win in their past 10 attempts. Here are three observations from the game:
Atlanta’s ninth-inning heroes were far from the usual suspects, although the usual suspects certainly had their say in the early going.
Trailing by a run with just three outs remaining on the day, the Braves had to get to work in the final frame … and they got it done with help from the following cast of characters: utility player Ryan Doumit, outfielder Jordan Schafer and, not to be forgotten, Cardinals’ relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez. Doumit and Schafer held two of the Braves’ worst batting lines entering the game, both producing at or below replacement level, but they delivered quality at-bats against Rosenthal — Doumit taking him into the right field corner for a double and Schafer standing in for an eight-pitch walk that plated the game-tying run.
Martinez would come in to throw a wild pitch against Ramiro Pena (another sub-.300 OBP guy this season) to plate Doumit for the game-winning run.
It was a ragtag spurt to yet another so-so performance from this offense as a whole, but all runs are welcome and any road win is acceptable for this Braves team right now, regardless of how they are packaged. And after Schafer’s plate appearance yielded a bases-loaded free pass to knot the score at 5-5, Doumit was not about to let the opportunity to score a free run slip away.
"Right when it went past (Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina)," Doumit said on when he knew he had a chance to make it home, all while factoring in Busch Stadium’s unique brick backstop. "You gotta take a chance in a situation like that. I got a favorable bounce back there, it didn’t bounce off too hard, but I was going regardless."
It was the first time the Braves offense scored six or more runs in nearly a month, when they scored seven runs against the Mets on April 19. And if it wasn’t for the first "true" comeback for this team of the season — it’s difficult to consider, given the team’s outrageous success in such situations in 2013, that the Braves were 0-17 this season when trailing after seven innings before getting to Rosenthal — the offense would have faced even more questions concerning a lack of productivity top to bottom.
"We’re at the end of this road trip and everybody’s, you know, tired of losing," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "And we played a grind-out battle royale there at the end. We just kept getting good at-bats, and it’s nice to win this one. It really is. This one will maybe get us going in the right direction. … You’ve gotta give credit to everybody."
That credit extends to Schafer on this occasion, too.
The backup outfielder entered the game as an oft-discussed topic given the recent struggles of starter and MLB strikeout leader B.J. Upton, who is stuck in an eye-opening slump at the moment, with many calling for the 27-year-old Schafer to assume the starting role. Those calling for such a drastic move are, of course, ignoring the fact that Schafer is hitting just .115/.207/.192 with insubstantial fielding numbers this season … and that’s after factoring in his two-walk day in St. Louis. That line was even uglier on Sunday morning.
Upton has been up and down this season, but Schafer is not the quick-fix answer to this offense’s riddle — especially not for those who apparently do not believe in statistics calling for him to replace Heyward in the leadoff spot because, you know, he runs fast — no matter how you slice it. And when he lost the ball in the sun for the Cardinals go-ahead run in the seventh inning, things could have gone from bad to worse.
To Schafer’s credit, he hung in for arguably the team’s most important single plate appearance of this difficult road trip, and he took ball No. 4 (although Rosenthal and Cardinals supporters will walk away from the game clamoring for strike three on the borderline low fastball). It was Schafer’s second walk of the day after entering the game with just one free pass in his previous 26 plate appearances this season.
"Baseball gods give you a chance to redeem yourself. And they give him a chance there in that inning to redeem himself, and he did," Gonzalez said. "Great at-bat. Really great at-bat."
#Braves Schafer: “It was nice to be given a chance to kind of redeem myself a little bit. I was trying to go up there and compete."
— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) May 18, 2014
One game doesn’t make Schafer a better option than Upton in center (and certainly not as a viable candidate at lead-off), but it was a quality late-game effort that the team desperately needed to stay out in front in the NL East standings.
Of course, the late-game ruckus should not overshadow what the Braves’ standout offensive performers put together to keep the team in the game throughout the afternoon …
Sure, Justin Upton has joined his older brother in a May hitting swoon, but taking in the entire 2014 campaign, these types of games are becoming less and less surprising: hitting in the Nos. 2 and 3 holes, Upton and Freeman drove in four of the Braves’ six runs on Sunday afternoon.
Freeman, per the usual, was the key cog. He reached base on every single plate appearance, finishing 4 for 4 with a solo home run and three RBI. In fact, it was Freeman’s leadoff single that got things rolling in that must-have ninth inning, and it was Freeman who trotted home on Schafer’s walk. It was just one of those games where the Braves first baseman is completely locked in, jumping all over early pitches and looking all but unstoppable in the batter’s box.
It was his eighth home run of the season, and he’s now hitting .314/.392/.535 for 150 weighted runs created (wRC+), which ranks in the top 10 among all qualified MLB hitters.
Justin Upton’s production was, perhaps, an even more welcome sight for Gonzalez’s club, as he had been stuck in neutral — or reverse — ever since April wrapped up, striking out with increasing regularity and seeing his power numbers dwindle. That power returned against Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, who was just returned from the disabled list for his first start of the season. Upton tacked on two extra-base hits to Freeman’s totals, including his team-leading 10th homer of the season, which trails only Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton for the NL’s home run lead.
Despite his recent downturn, Upton trails Freeman in the wRC+ department by only eight points, a tribute to both his April production and the value of power.
Together, Freeman and Upton combined to torch the Cardinals pitchers to the tune of 5 for 7 with two homers, four RBI and four runs. So it’s pretty evident that the ninth-inning scrap-a-thon shouldn’t receive the only accolades on this day.
(Added bonus: Their collective production apparently even triggered a HBP back-and-forth, with Freeman getting plunked after Upton’s solo shot, which was followed by three Cardinals players being hit before the game ended. Freeman responded with two more hits. Absolutely nothing derailed him.)
"I feel like I got stronger as the game went on," Floyd said following the win, which was a good thing considering things did not get off to a exceptional start.
Thanks to a rocky second inning in which the Cardinals capitalized on a passed ball by plating three runs on a Kolton Wong double, Floyd made it through 5 1/3 innings, his shortest outing of the season, while allowing four earned runs. He ran up 95 pitches, with 40 being called for balls.
Perhaps more interesting, or concerning, his strikeouts were down (four) and his walks were up (three).
Given Aaron Harang’s continued production and more extensive 2014 track record, Floyd’s position in this rotation remains the biggest question mark. He is, with little debate, holding down the No. 5 spot on the staff, and with potential starters Alex Wood — the second-year lefty who entered Sunday’s game in relief of Floyd — and David Hale holding down bullpen spots, there are options behind the former Phillies and White Sox arm should he falter. He did not let things get out of hand against the Cardinals lineup, but it was easily his least efficient outing to date.
Still, this is better than expected. (Heard that before with this rotation?)
Considering Floyd owns a 3.38 ERA, a 3.08 FIP and nearly a 4-to-1 K/BB ratio in three starts against formidable offenses in the Cardinals and Giants, the organization remains in a comfortable position with him on the mound and restricting Wood’s innings in relief work for now. Of course, with scheduled starts against the Rockies and Red Sox on the immediate docket, the 31-year-old isn’t exactly getting a respite any time soon.