Three Cuts: Braves rally falls short against Phillies
ATLANTA -- It was close but sloppy. Needing a win on Saturday night against the Phillies to keep pace with the Cardinals -- who beat the Cubs earlier in the day -- for the best record in the National League, the Braves struggled for eight innings before finally falling one hit short in the ninth. The Phillies won 5-4 in a game that was, at turns, maddening and thrilling for the home team.
Here are three cuts from an ugly one at Turner Field:
If there was a silver lining to Mike Minor's fourth consecutive loss -- his ninth of the year -- it was that after the first inning, he didn't give up any runs and his control was better than it has been at any point in September. "I felt good, feel healthy, and I felt like I had pretty good stuff tonight," Minor said. "I was throwing a lot of balls in the dirt but they were low and not high so I'll take that. The low balls got me behind in some counts but that was better than having it tail up and into some barrels." It didn't look good at the beginning. Two pitches in and Minor had men on second and third. Cesar Hernandez reached with a bunt on the first pitch of the game and then Jimmy Rollins doubled to left. Two batters later, Minor walked Domonic Brown to load the bases. The Braves' left-hander was fortunate to get out of the inning giving up only two runs when Cameron Rupp singled to center.
He struck out Cody Ashe with a perfect slider to end the inning, and did, in fact, look pretty good from that point forward, even though he had baserunners in each of his six innings of work. He walked three and struck out six, but by then the damage was done. The Braves never led and never looked as though they had a chance until the bottom of the ninth.
"I've been struggling the first innings, but I think this time it was bad luck," Minor said. "First pitch bunt; second pitch a double down the line. Third pitch, swung and popped out and then I got a strikeout and a walk. Then I made a good pitch and (Rupp) hit a shot up the middle."
When you've had the kind of four-week stretch that Minor has since late August you take whatever positives you can find. Coming into Saturday, his ERA in his three previous starts was 4.36. Still he has been one of the Braves most solid performers and his confidence is imperative for the team’s success in the playoffs. "Yeah, it's positive," he said. "Being healthy going into the post-season is a positive."
Offensive bright spots were few and far between, but the first two men in the Braves' lineup certainly did their part at the plate. Looking a little like Iron Man with a face-protector on his batting helmet, Jason Heyward, who many fans thought they'd seen the last of for the year when a Jon Niese fastball broke his jaw on August 21, had a great night in the leadoff spot, singling to left in the first and later scoring the Braves’ first run on a sacrifice fly by Freddie Freeman.
He reached twice more on walks and made great swings on his third and fifth at-bats before grounding and popping out.
But as good as Heyward's night was, the guy right behind him played even better. Justin Upton went four for five against a bevy of Phillies pitchers and drove in three runs with a solo shot over the left-center wall with two outs in the ninth. That pulled the Braves to within one. It was one of the few bright spots in a game where the home team gave up 13 hits, stranded 10 runners and carded three costly errors -- a bad throw from Chris Johnson at third and a boot in left field by Evan Gattis, the latter of which allowed a run to score, along with a wild throw to first by pitcher Jordan Walden on an attempted pickoff play.
"We just couldn't quite get that last out against some of their left-handed hitters,” Fredi Gonzalez said. "C.J. with a throwing error and Gattis with one and then the pick-off play, that got us behind the eight-ball a little bit."
Even so, the Braves had a chance. In the bottom of the ninth, Elliot Johnson reached with an infield single to second, followed by Jose Constanza who also reached on a hard-hit single to second.
Heyward made several good swings before popping out to the catcher for the second out, and it looked as though the Braves would be sent home having stranded ten times more runners than runs scored. But then Jonathan Papelbon hung a curveball and Upton belted it out.
Freddie Freeman singled to right and Gattis walked to put the tying run in scoring position and the winning run at first.
That was as close as the Braves could get, though. Chris Johnson hit a hard shot down the third-base line but Jimmy Rollins made a diving grab, leapt to his feet and threw Johnson out at first.
"These guys battle," Gonzalez said. "We had the right guy at the plate, too. Chris had a helluva at-bat and Jimmy made a great play, not only to stop the run from scoring but to get up and throw him out at first base." Upton agreed. "We played 'til the end today and we gave ourselves an opportunity," he said. "That's all we can ask for. If we play like that and eliminate some of the errors I think we’re in a pretty good position."
The loss puts Atlanta a game behind St. Louis with only one game remaining. The Braves own the tie-breaker, so if the Cubs can beat St. Louis on Sunday the Braves can still clinch home-field advantage with a win over the Phillies. But after Saturday night, they no longer control their destiny.
"We still have to win a ballgame," Justin Upton said. "It's out of our control now. We had control tonight and didn't do it, so we'll come back tomorrow and do what we have to do."
According to their skipper, the positive way they finished should give the Braves a lot of confidence heading into the final game.
"The way we played this last inning, that's still a big carrot for us, for us to win and St. Louis to lose for us to get the No. 1 seed," Gonzalez said. "Regardless we have to win games whether it's at home or not," Upton said when asked if the team would approach Sunday with a playoff mindset. "We can't put too much pressure on that ballgame, because we've got to win on the road no matter what. Obviously we want to play in front of the home fans throughout the playoffs. But at the end of day you have to win ballgames."