Three Cuts: Justin Upton gives Braves wild win over Nationals
ATLANTA — Oddities? Those were in surplus.
There was Washington’s Nate McLouth lining a single off second-base umpire Angel Hernandez’s ankle; the Braves’ Dan Uggla being called for obstruction in colliding with the Nationals’ Denard Span on an RBI single a batter later; Washington’s Adam LaRoche — who with 10 steals in 1,348 games isn’t known for his speed — trying to score from second (and failing) on a wild pitch; Braves’ starter Julio Teheran struggling vs. a team he’s dominated and light-hitting Ramiro Pena homering (again) vs. Washington.
Of course, this game would go extra innings.
Pinch runner Jordan Schafer scored from first on Justin Upton’s bloop single to shallow right field as the Braves edged the Nationals 7-6 in 10 innings Friday night at Turner Field. It was Atlanta’s third win in four games vs. its National League East rivals and the 16th of 23 dating back to last season.
"It was a weird game and guess what? We’ve got to play these guys (15) more times," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Here are three observations from the series opener.
Heading into Thursday’s game against the Mets, Upton had yet to homer this season. It was a perplexing power outage for a player who last year set a franchise record with 12 blasts in the month.
Two games later, Mr. April appears to be back on track, hitting two on Thursday and one on Friday.
"Just trying to take the same mentality to the plate every night, go up there and fight and get what you can get," Upton said.
Considering he was 6 for 30 in the first eight games of the season, that may be putting this latest opening-month hot streak too lightly.
His eighth-inning solo homer on Friday to dead center field off Tyler Clippard tied things up at 6-6 — the 19th time in his career he’s tied a game with a long ball). In his next at-bat, Upton dropped a Jerry Blevins curveball in front of Washington right fielder Bryce Harper, allowing the speedy Schafer, inserted as a pinch runner after Chris Johnson’s third hit of the game, to score the winning run from first base.
"I’ve seen Schaf run before, so I was hoping he (would score)," Upton said. "They had a chance, but that ball got down and got away from them a little bit. That’s why we put the speed at first base. He made a good play for us."
Upton, who was 3 for 3 on the night, is 6 for 7 in his last two games to up his batting average to .324 with five RBI. It’s a step below last season’s torrid start, when he had six homers, 10 RBI and hit .385/.419/.949 at this point, but he’s once again showing the ability to put the team on his back, as he delivered his seventh walk-off win.
"We saw it last April when he carried us," Gonzalez said. "He’s starting to get hot."
In six innings of work, Julio Teheran was tagged for two earned runs, giving the Braves their eighth quality start of the season, which ties the A’s for the most in baseball (only David Hale has yet to deliver one, missing in both of his starts) — but this wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from him.
Teheran allowed 10 hits — his most since last April 29 — which included a three-run home run to Ryan Zimmerman (who was 0-for-11 vs. the Colombian coming into the game). He also had the fewest strikeouts (one) of his 37 career starts.
"My last few games, I haven’t had my best, but I’ve just tried to get people out by fighting," Teheran said.
While Teheran was able to limit damage to single innings in his first two starts (a two RBI double vs. the Brewers in the season opener; a two-run home run by Adam LaRoche on April 5 vs. the Nats), the 23-year-old perpetually found himself in trouble against a team he’s largely dominated (1.144 WHIP and 24 K’s in the last 25 2/3 innings vs. Washington coming in).
After yielding three hits to the first 11 Nationals he faced, Teheran proceeded to put four straight on base in the fourth inning with a walk to LaRoche and singles by Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper before Ian Desmond drove LaRoche in to cut Atlanta’s lead to 4-1.
An inning later, a Jayson Werth single followed by LaRoche reaching on a Dan Uggla throwing error set the stage for Zimmerman’s blast. Then, in the sixth, Jose Lobaton doubled and Kevin Frandsen added an RBI single as Washington pulled even at 5-5.
In all, eight of the last 13 batters Teheran faced reach safely (one via the aforementioned Uggla error), resulting in four runs.
How out of character was it? Using Bill James’ Game Score metric, Teheran registered a 34, which was his second-worst outing ever, trailing only April 6, 2013 when he totaled a 32 in giving up five earned runs and eight hits in five innings.
While Justin Upton homered for the third time in as many days, his power is a known commodity. Pena on the other hand, owns a .080 ISO (slugging minus batting average) and 17 home runs in 2,700 plate appearances in the majors and minors. He’s not what anyone would categorize as a consistent threat to go deep.
That is unless he’s facing the Nationals while in a Braves uniform.
Starting at shortstop in place of Andrelton Simmons, Pena took Tanner Roark’s 2-2 fastball and planted it in right field for a three-run shot in the second inning, giving him three homers in 23 plate appearances against the Nationals. That ties him for second-most against the Nationals with Brandon Belt and Chris Davis and trail Donnie Murphy by one. But Murphy has 29 homers in his career, Belt 38 and Davis 130 and Pena had just two career HRs in 341 trips to the plate before signing with the Braves before the 2013 season. Now, he has three against one team in 318 fewer chances?
It’s a confounding success for a guy with the resume of a contact hitter — his 36.1 fly ball rate is roughly eight percent lower than what’s typical for power hitters and he owns a 42.8 ground-ball percentage — and one who prompted a scouting report that said "the ball does not jump off Pena’s bat because of a lack of physical strength."
So it was all the more surprising not that Pena just added homer No. 3 vs. Washington, but that he nearly added another in the fourth inning, though the offering landed feet short of the center-field wall and into the glove of Denard Span.