When Elliot Johnson doubled and Freddie Freeman hit a two-run homer before the second out of the first inning Friday night, Braves fans might have wondered what all the fuss was about over Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez.
Fernandez settled in and gave everyone a good idea why he’s a frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year. But Atlanta’s own top rookie, Julio Teheran, won the pitching duel and the Braves beat the Marlins 2-1 at Turner Field to push their winning streak to five games and cut their magic number to 15.
“I was excited,” said Teheran (11-7), who allowed one run, four hits and three walks with eight strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings. “I tried to do my best and show everybody what I can do.”
Any combination of Braves wins and Nationals losses totaling 15 will clinch the Braves’ first National League East division title since 2005. Atlanta improved its majors-leading records to 82-52 overall and 48-18 at home, including 17-3 with a 2.15 ERA in the past 20 home games.
Teheran retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced and improved to 4-2 with a 2.23 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break. With closer Craig Kimbrel resting after closing the the previous three wins, Anthony Varvaro pitched two innings including a perfect ninth for his first save.
Varvaro gave up a leadoff single to Giancarlo Stanton in the eighth, but Stanton was out at second base on a strong throw by right fielder Jordan Schafer when Stanton tried to advance on Justin Ruggiano’s fly out.
“I definitely knew that it was a save situation, but I looked at it as any other outing,” Varvaro said. “It just means that we’re one step closer to a playoff berth. It’s cool and all to get into the books, but I’m just looking at it as a team win. As long as we keep on collecting them, we’ll be able to reach our ultimate goal.”
Teheran gave up a run after Fernandez’s leadoff triple in a 32-pitch, two-hit, two-walk third inning. But after Placido Polanco lined out to center to leave the bases loaded in the third, Teheran took control. The only Miami batter to reach base against him the rest of the way was Logan Morrison on a sixth-inning walk.
When he was replaced in the seventh inning, Teheran got a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout after Jeff Mathis popped out on his 98th pitch.
“The two young kids, Teheran and Fernandez, they both pitched outstanding,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “They both had tough innings. Julio the third and I don’t remember if it was the fourth or fifth for Fernandez, but they both pitched really well. I was really surprised for both guys, the composure, for being young. In those jams, they didn’t rattle. I’ve got a feeling that those two guys are going to match up for a lot of games in the future.”
Fernandez was charged with three hits, two runs and two walks with eight strikeouts in six innings in his first start against the Braves.
“That was a tough one,” Fernandez said. “It was pretty tough. I learned a lot from it.”
It was likely one of his last two or three starts before he’s shut down due to a 170-innings limit the Marlins have on the prized Cuban rookie. In 16 starts since June 1, Fernandez is 8-3 with a 1.61 ERA, with 121 strikeouts and 32 walks in 106-1/3 innings. He’s allowed five hits or fewer in all but one of those games.
Utility man Elliot Johnson, a recent waiver-claim pickup from the Royals, continued to make a splash by doubling to the right field corner with one out in the first inning. It was the sixth hit in six starts for the Braves, after he finished in a 1-for-51 skid with the Royals.
Freeman followed with his 17th homer on the next pitch, a change-up that he drove over the fence in straightaway center to draw a roar from a crowd of 28,255 on El Oso Blanco night at the ballpark.
“First-pitch change-up,” Johnson said. “Let’s not forget how hard that is. I mean, you’re some kind of special if you go up there and first pitch you see from a guy who can throw 98 (mph), and you hit a change-up dead center for a homer? That’s special.”
Freeman also doubled on the first pitch of his next at-bat leading off the fourth inning, after which Fernandez turned toward him at second base and smiled.
“I told Freeman, ‘How can I get you out?’” Fernandez said. “And he starts laughing.”
The first-pitch swings from Freeman weren’t surprising, considering he entered Friday having swung at just over 47 percent of first pitches, the second-highest rate in the majors. He raised his average to .464 when putting the first pitch in play, among the top six in the NL.
When Freeman swung at first-pitch fastball outside and fouled it off in the sixth inning, Fernandez and the Braves first baseman smiled at one another, and the pitcher good-naturedly motioned to him to go back to the dugout.
“The last time he came up to bat, I was warming up and he was leading the inning off,” Fernandez said. “I said, ‘Hey. Go back. Go back to the dugout.’”
Before Friday, Fernandez had allowed just two homers in 15 starts since June 1. He’s allowed more than two earned runs only once in his past 16 starts, that when he gave up three in six innings of a loss against St. Louis.
He was perfect in four of his six innings, and Fernandez escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth when Andrelton Simmons grounded into an inning-ending fielder’s choice. Simmons grounded to short on the first pitch, after – in order — a 14-pitch strikeout by Brian McCann including a wild pitch, a four-pitch walk to Dan Uggla (Fernandez intentionally walked him after falling behind 3-0) and five-pitch walk to B.J. Upton.
Simmons’ offensive contributions were limited to a sacrifice bunt in the seventh inning, but the shortstop added two more sensational defensive plays to a personal highlight reel that’s already feature-length.
The man at the center of the El Oso Blanco promotional night, Evan Gattis, wasn’t in the lineup, and the crowd cheered wildly when he came up as a pinch-hitter with runners at second and third and one out in the seventh inning. Then they booed even louder when he was intentionally walked by reliever A.J. Ramos.
With the bases loaded, the Marlins brought in left-hander Dan Jennings to face Jordan Schafer, who struck out to make him 2-for-22 with one walk and nine strikeouts against lefties. Elliot Johnson struck out to end the inning as the Braves left the bases loaded for the second time in a span of three innings.
Gattis was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett after the game. The Braves made the move because he’s slumped and hasn’t played much lately, and they want him to get three games’ worth of at-bats before the minor league season ends, at which point he’ll be brought back up to rejoin the big-league club.