The Braves have been saying since the first day of spring training this season was going to be different, that they were going to put September’s collapse to good use.
They let the memory of Freddie Freeman throwing his helmet to the ground in disgust after hitting into a double play against the Phillies linger, and that’s OK. It was all the more reason to enjoy the trajectory of where that helmet – and the Braves – went Tuesday night.
That thing went flying high into the air at Turner Field after Freeman hit his first career walk-off home run to beat the Marlins 4-3, secure at least a wild card berth, make some history for Kris Medlen and follow a fist-pumping Chipper Jones into a scrum of ecstatic teammates at home plate.
“This is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Freeman, whose close-cropped hair had been caked in mud and doused with champagne. “2012 has come full circle. It’s a great moment, and it’s a great moment for this team.”
A year after the Braves blew an 8 ½-game wild card lead in September, the Braves clinched at least a spot in the Oct. 5 wild card playoff with eight games to spare. And they are still within four games of the Nationals for the NL East.
The Braves magic number to clinch home-field advantage over the Cardinals is three.
Nobody felt the release more than Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who took the brunt of the heat for last September’s collapse and couldn’t hold back the tears when he was assured of a better fate this time around.
“You don’t know whether to laugh or cry or look for somebody to hug or slap on the back,” Gonzalez said.
His first phone call after the game was to his wife Pam, and the second to his mentor Bobby Cox.
“It was good,” said Gonzalez, choking up simply at the mention of it. “I just listened a little bit.”
The Braves rallied around a retiring Cox the last time they made the postseason in 2010. This time around it’s Jones, and he’s the one doing the heavy lifting.
In the first game of his final regular season homestand, Jones drew a walk and scored the Braves first run, drove in their second with a sacrifice fly, and lead off the ninth with a two-run double off Mike Dunn.
“I feel like as long as I’ve got an at-bat in the ninth, we’ve got a chance,” said Jones, whose teammates and 25,632 fans at Turner Field felt the same way. “I was lucky enough to set the table and Freddie Freeman mopped it up.”
Freeman normally loves the ambush, but remembered Dunn had thrown him a first-pitch slider last week in Miami. So he took the pitch, and it paid off as Jones advanced to third on the wild pitch. Two pitches later, just looking to drive something deep to score Jones, Freeman unleashed a 411-foot home run to straightaway center field.
Rising up out of his recliner in the Braves clubhouse was Medlen, who had pitched seven strong innings but left with a 3-2 deficit after giving up three runs on two swings by rookie Donovan Solano, the first two home runs of his career.
“I said some things I probably shouldn’t have said in there, things that I would do if (Freeman) hit a home run, and he did,” Medlen said. “I am a man of my word but not really. Not to that extent.”
The Braves walked off to win for the record-tying 22nd straight time in games started by Medlen, a feat matched by only three pitchers since 1920. Medlen walked off in shower shoes, meeting his teammates in the hallway to celebrate.
The Giants won 22 straight behind Carl Hubbell in 1936-1937 and the Yankees won 22 straight for Whitey Ford in 1950 and 1953 in and around the two years he served in the Korean War.
The Braves haven’t lost one of Medlen’s starts since May 23, 2010 in Pittsburgh. He had just returned from elbow reconstruction surgery when the Braves collapsed last September. He pitched 1 1/3 innings in relief of that 13-inning loss to end the season.
Craig Kimbrel, who blew a save that day, pitched a scoreless ninth to win it Tuesday, and the Braves never saw extra innings.
“You can’t really win consistently until you lose,” Medlen said. “You’ve got to have that heartbreak to know how to react in certain situations and how to bounce back.”