Three Cuts: Freeman’s defensive save seals Braves win over Reds

Freddie Freeman's catch at the first-base bag on Chris Johnson's errant throw preserved the Braves' 5-4 win against the Reds.

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves built up an early five-run lead and held on for a 5-4 win against the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night at Turner Field. Here are three observations from the game:

After giving up more runs than any other Braves starter has in a single outing this season — just four — Ervin Santana watched the final few innings from the team clubhouse. As he sat there, with his third win of 2014 in his bullpen’s hands, things got a little dicey. With the game’s preeminent closer, Craig Kimbrel on the mound with two on and two out, Reds All-Star first baseman Joey Votto hit a grounder to third base, presumably as the final out of the game.

But third baseman Chris Johnson’s throw was off the mark.

As first baseman Freddie Freeman stretched for the errant throw, his foot eventually came off the bag. The question was when it came off. The call on the field was out, but Reds manager Bryan Price wanted a replay review. When Santana was asked about how he was handling this up-in-the-air ending, Johnson answered for him: "Nervous."

"Yeah, a little nervous," said the Braves starter, who is now 3-0 with a 1.95 ERA and 1.82 fielding-independent pitching this season. "But, you know, you never know if they were going to change the call."

The umpires did not. Upon video review, the crew upheld the call, ruling that Freeman kept his foot on the bag just long enough after catching the ball, ending the 5-4 game in a favorable fashion for Atlanta. It was a necessary stretch, too, because it more than likely kept a run off the board.

"I’m gonna look back tomorrow and see where (Roger) Bernandina was (down the third-base line), because all of a sudden (Votto is) safe, I think Bernadina scores there," Gonzalez said. "But whatever. We don’t have to deal with it. They got the play right, and that’s why replay is there for those plays.

" … I didn’t know until I saw the replay on the (scoreboard) and I felt kinda, you know, a little relieved, but you just never know how they’re gonna come out from under the headset. We’ve seen plays that they had a better angle, they had another feed, but from the feeds that I saw on the board, he was clearly out. And Freeman did a terrific job staying on the bag there."

Replay review has certainly come under its fair share of scrutiny during its rookie season in baseball, but the video evidence appeared to show the umpires made the correct call. If Freeman doesn’t make such an athletic effort to secure the win, it would have been one of the first times the new system has directly affected the final out of the game. Bernardina would have scored the tying run, which only would have created a firestorm, especially if the Reds prevailed through the bottom of the ninth and extra innings.

"Well, I mean, you don’t like (replay) when it doesn’t go your way," said outfielder Justin Upton, whose three-run home run broke open the game in the first inning. "But now that they’ve cleaned up the transfer rule, it’s actually (working out). At the end of the day, you have to deal with it. And tonight it went our way and you’ve just gotta take it for what it is."

There is a collection of evidence from recent seasons that suggests a trip to the eye doctor can pay immediate dividends for a Braves hitter; taken a step further, the evidence would seem to suggest that timing and squaring up 95-mile-per-hour fastballs in a matter of milliseconds would require optimal vision. As Braves players both past and present — from Brian McCann to Freddie Freeman and, most recently, B.J. Upton — can attest, eyesight is a key component (vision experts might argue it is one of a very select group of pivotal components) to finding success at the plate.

And perhaps it’s a case of location bias, but Atlanta seems to have run into a bit more ocular misfortune than most teams over this stretch of, say, five seasons. Not including Freeman’s most recent concern, Upton is the latest to join the group, as he donned glasses for the first time on Friday night. They were the studious type of glasses, too. These aren’t the sleek sports glasses or the goggles so often seen in ’70s highlight films — no, this is a serious look. Upton wasn’t much for talking about the change, but things went relatively well for the center fielder against the Reds pitching staff.

"It’s a good look for him," Justin Upton said.

Upton did not match his brother’s continued hot streak, but a 1 for 4 effort with three hard-hit balls turned out to be a good sign. He made good contact on the ball, it just so happens that he laced the baseball straight to left fielder Ryan Ludwick and second baseman Brandon Phillips.

"I thought he hit a couple (well)," Gonzalez said. "The first one, I thought, he rolled over and it looked like he was gonna make the turn, thinking it was a double, and it made it closer than it should have been at first. The next one he hit, he hit it right on the nose, which is good. That’s a good AB."

Upton’s post-vision-correction outing joins a growing list of recent examples.

Last season, in coming back from August Lasik surgery, Dan Uggla returned to the lineup to reach base twice in four plate appearances — an unspectacular night similar to Upton’s, but when taking into consideration how difficult it was for Uggla to reach base last season, it’s a big jump. In 2012, Freeman, then in his second full season in the majors, donned his trademark sports goggles look and subsequently went 3 for 5 with a home run and a double. (Vision is just about the only thing that has slowed down Freeman this season, too, as he finished 3 for 4 against Cincy pitchers.)

It’s unknown if Upton’s vision was giving him as much trouble as Freeman’s was — unlikely, given the stories of the first baseman seeing two baseballs at once along with a burning sensation when things were are their worst — but if the glasses make him feel more comfortable at the plate then … why not?

Joey Votto and Steve Smith made a grave mistake.

It took less than a half-inning for the Braves defense to offer Santana a helping hand by keeping a run off the scoreboard. With runners on the corners and one out, Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce popped out to right field, deep enough for a potential sacrifice fly. Votto and Smith, the Reds’ third base coach, certainly thought so. Votto bolted for the plate as soon as the ball touched leather, but what he didn’t account for was the fact that Jason Heyward was the guy with the ball and that his throw was going to beat him to home plate by a wide margin — hence, ending the inning on a double play and adding another tally to Heyward’s league-leading defensive runs saved.

"Oh, you know, Gold Glove. Not a question," Santana said. "That’s why he is a Gold Glove."

Added Gonzalez: "Great throw from Heyward and a great tag play from (Evan) Gattis. And we get out of the inning with no runs and Justin comes in the very next inning and hits a three-run homer and gets us on the board."

Entering the game, Heyward was already off to a good start to reclaim the Gold Glove in right field — he won the award in 2012, but lost out to Arizona’s Gerrardo Parra last season — after racking up 10 defensive runs saved through the first 21 games, the best mark in baseball (DRS leaders entering Friday):

Thanks in large part to Heyward and the Uptons (those three have combined for 74 percent of the early-season defensive effectiveness), the Braves lead all of baseball with 23 DRS, three runs better than the Colorado Rockies. It’s an impressive collective feat considering Atlanta trots out two below-average defensive infielders in Uggla (MLB’s worst fielder last season, according to DRS) and Chris Johnson, a first-year starting catcher and a Platinum Glove-winning shortstop that, for some reason, has not garnered the same sabermetric love he did a season ago. (PSA: Do not bet anything valuable against Andrelton Simmons finishing among the best defensive shortstops in baseball by season’s end.)

The Braves pitching has been good enough on its own, but backed those numbers it’s no wonder, after giving up four earned runs, Atlanta’s team ERA "ballooned" up to 2.19 following its 15th win of the season.

These defensive metrics tend to fluctuate with time, especially year-to-year, but this is unquestionably a point of strength for Atlanta under Gonzalez. Since he took over in 2011, only one team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, has featured a better defense. With Heyward and Simmons still in uniform at premium positions, that isn’t likely to change this season.