After a week in which they had very little to feel good about, the Braves doubled down on satisfaction Tuesday night: They snapped a seven-game losing streak and got a big performance from a veteran pitcher in his first start since Tommy John surgery.
Gavin Floyd pitched seven strong innings and Chris Johnson’s RBI single in the eighth inning lifted the Braves to a 2-1 win against the Cardinals at Turner Field, snapping the team’s longest skid since an eight-game streak in May 2012.
“I didn’t expect that,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Floyd’s performance. “I expected a guy that was going to scuffle through five, six innings first time out. Hadn’t been in competition for a year, coming through all that stuff. But he sure passed with flying colors. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
A day shy of the one-year anniversary of surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament and torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow, Floyd pitched seven innings of one-run ball, allowing six hits and two walks with five strikeouts. Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts for his ninth save.
He didn’t gete a decision, but there were only smiles after the 31-year-old right-hander threw 66 strikes in 104 healthy pitches.
“Just thankful for this opportunity,” Floyd said. “It felt good. A lot of emotions, a lot of excitement this whole process, leading up to it and then getting back out there. It was a big win for us today and hopefully we can continue to get after it tomorrow.”
The Braves will send Mike Minor to face Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright in Wednesday night’s rubber game and series finale.
With the score 1-1 in the eighth inning, the Braves got consecutive one-out singles from Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman, the latter a screaming liner off the leg of left-handed reliever Randy Choate. Side-armer Pat Neshek entered to face Johnson, who has struggled mightily.
He used an inside-out swing for an opposite-field single to right that proved to be the game-winning RBI.
“It felt good,” said Johnson, who had been 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position. “It was a grind, I tell you that. It wasn’t easy. The guy (Neshek) is funky, he’s nasty. Anybody who’s watched me lately knows that that was just a battle between me and him and me trying to get something in play.
“I was able to finally stay on the ball and kind of go the other way a little bit, which was nice.”
Justin Upton’s 457-foot home run in the fourth inning was the first hit for the Braves and gave them a lead. His ninth homer of the season was tied for ninth-longest in the majors this season and gave Upton two of the top 10, the other his 477-footer on April 10 that ranks third.
Floyd he was nervous early, but you wouldn’t know watching him throw 91-94 mph fastballs, 83-87 mph cutters and sharp curveballs, with command that improved as the night went on. He said it ranked among his biggest nights.
“My debut was probably my top, and there were probably a couple of other ones,” said Floyd, who had double-digit wins for five consecutive seasons before making only five starts in 2013. “But this is up there. Just to be able to have a chance to play baseball again and throw again and be healthy, definitely will rank up near the top.”
The Cardinals tied the score on Matt Holliday’s RBI single in the sixth inning, and the Braves wasted scoring opportunities in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings in what’s become a familiar refrain.
Cardinals lefty Tyler Lyons came in with a 2-6 record and 5.34 ERA in 10 career starts, and limited the Braves to three hits and one run in six innings, with one walk and seven strikeouts.
After B.J. Upton’s seventh-inning leadoff double against reliever Seth Maness, the Braves went down in order with Dan Uggla grounding out and getting booed, Floyd striking out, and Andrelton Simmons grounding out while hitting ninth (Gonzalez batted the pitcher eighth for the second consecutive game).
Simmons also struck out with two on to end the fifth inning, one of three strikeouts in the inning.
Simmons’ last outs with in the fifth and seventh innings and Laird’s strikeouts with two on to end the sixth and eighth innings lowered the Braves’ major league-worst average with runners in scoring position and two outs to .118 (13-for-111), including 8-for-101 (.079) by players other than Freddie Freeman.
After Johnson’s go-ahead single in the eighth, the Braves had a chance to do more damage with runners on the corners and one out. But Laird missed a bunt attempt and Freeman was hung out to dry in a rundown between third and home.
But in the end, Floyd’s performance and the Braves’ first win made it the team’s best night in a while.
Floyd had to be activated Sunday after using the maximum 30 days on an injury-rehab start. With Ervin Santana nursing a bruised thumb, the Braves plugged Floyd into Santana’s turn in the rotation for one start.
Gonzalez faces a decision on what to do with Floyd, whom most had assumed would go to the bullpen for the time being and be available as a spot (sixth) starter. After the way he pitched Tuesday, the situation might be more complicated. Gonzalez said late Tuesday he looked forward to seeing Floyd pitch again in five or six days, and left it at that.
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