Three Cuts: Braves trip Cubs late, clinch share of NL East
Here are three things we learned from the Braves' 9-5 victory over the Cubs, a thrilling win that sliced the club's magic number to 1 and clinched a share of the National League East title.
OK, so the Braves haven't officially clinched the division crown at the time of this writing; and for all we know, the champagne christening might be delayed until Saturday or Sunday (depending on the Nationals' guile to stay in the wild card race).
But when viewing Freeman's third-inning blast off Cubs pitcher Scott Baker — with Justin Upton and Jason Heyward (more on him later) occupying the bases — and McCann's two-out, tie-breaking RBI single in the 9th, both clutch plays represented the work of a title-contending team that appears relieved to be playing pressure-packed games again.
Obviously, the Braves (91-62) had earned this September devoid of must-win contests, the dual result of overseeing the National League's best record and ruling a division of also-rans with an iron fist.
But even good teams — perhaps great ones — need to stay sharp before the playoffs begin.
In other words, maybe it was strangely beneficial for the Braves to squander a 5-1 lead against the Cubs ... and then explode for four runs in the decisive 9th — thanks to a Jordan Schafer walk, Freeman walk (intentional), McCann single, Chris Johnson single, Dan Uggla walk and Andrelton Simmons double off the Wrigley Field ivy, scoring McCann and Paul Janish with the eighth and ninth runs, respectively.
And with this hard-fought victory comes a welcome follow-up question to the Braves players, coaches and staffers:
Which Chicago hotel, restaurant, jazz club or speakeasy should they watch the Marlins and Nationals on Friday night, in hopes of Miami officially putting the title (and champagne) on ice?
Star hitters like Colorado's Michael Cuddyer (.331), Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen (.327) and the aforementioned Johnson (.327 heading into Friday) have had five-and-a-half months to state their case for a batting title.
But apparently, it hasn't been enough time to settle one of baseball's most celebrated individual contests.
With his one homer, two runs, two RBI and three hits, Johnson pushed his batting tally four points to .331, with nine games left to play. (Cuddyer and McCutchen both play at night on Friday.)
For the month, Johnson is batting a robust .301 with one homer, eight RBI and a .347 on-base percentage. If he should capture the batting crown, he'll become the National League's third full-time third baseman in 29 years to accomplish the feat.
The other two winners? Braves stars Terry Pendleton (1991) and Chipper Jones (2008).
Donning a mask to protect the right side of his mouth/jaw, Heyward (0 for 2) was activated and inserted into the Braves lineup Friday, drawing a start in center field and scoring one run over three plate appearances (including one walk).
Heyward's five-inning cameo wasn't about the need for immediate results; it was more about getting his feet wet in a major-league setting (iconic Wrigley), while prepping for the playoff baseball that awaits in 14 days.
Before going down with a fractured jaw on Aug. 21 (after getting struck by a Jon Niese fastball), Heyward was raking the ball everywhere in the leadoff spot, tallying four homers, 10 RBI, 17 runs, a .348 batting average, .419 on-base percentage, .621 slugging and 1.040 OPS during August.
Of equal importance, Heyward had begun convincing the public at large (media, fans) the Braves could win an NL pennant or World Series title without a classic leadoff hitter — namely a fleet-footed spray hitter who thinks more of stealing second than logging rock-solid power numbers.
But the supporting evidence was overwhelmingly positive: Of Atlanta's 23 games leading up to Heyward's injury, the club notched six or more runs nine times ... while registering 19 victories.
Chris Johnson was admittedly taken aback about seeing Heyward's name scrawled on the locker-room whiteboard, decrying the afternoon lineup.
"We were all excited. It was great to see," said Johnson on the Braves' post-game telecast on Fox Sports South. "There's no guy we want back more than Jason."