With apologies to Brian McCann, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons made himself the story Monday night.
The Braves shortstop is starting to heat up – and he used McCann’s return from shoulder surgery to show how much. Simmons homered twice for the first time in his career to lead the Braves to a 7-4 win over the Reds.
Simmons said afterward he spent some time in the batting cage with Justin Upton during the Braves’ rainout on Saturday. It showed.
“We hit for quite a bit that day and it really helped,” said Simmons, who now has four home runs to Upton’s majors’ leading 12. “…I’m right where I want to be.”
Simmons hit a solo shot off Bronson Arroyo in the second inning and came back with a two-run job off reliever Logan Ondrusek in the eighth. His four RBIs – all from the eighth spot in the order - were a career high, as were his three hits, which he did for the sixth time.
Simmons has six multi-hit games in his past 14 to raise his season average from .185 to .252.
“I think when it’s all said and done after this year, we’re going to be talking about him as one of the top shortstops in baseball,” said McCann, who didn’t mind sharing the spotlight. “We’ve had some unbelievable shortstops here since I’ve been here with (Rafael) Furcal, (Edgar) Renteria, and Alex Gonzalez, and he’s right there with all of them.”
Simmons played his usual dynamic shortstop, where he has yet to commit an error in his first 127 chances over 29 games. He applied a tag on Shin-Soo Choo from between the legs to complete a pickoff play and end the seventh.
“I just improvised,” Simmons said, with a shrug. “The umpire was kind of in the way so (Freddie) Freeman had to throw a little across so he didn’t hit him. And I just caught it and had to get there somehow, so…”
The Braves figured to take advantage of the short fences at Great American Ballpark, they just might not have figured Simmons and Jordan Schafer for the power providers.
Schafer followed Simmons with a solo shot to right field in the eighth for his first career pinch-hit home run. They paired up to give the Braves their third back-to-back home runs of the season.
Schafer followed suit defensively too. He made a great diving catch in left field to lead off the ninth and help Craig Kimbrel collect his 99th career save. Kimbrel struck out Joey Votto, who represented the tying run with two runners on base, to end the game.
The Reds, who are tied for the most home wins in the majors with 12, lost for only the fifth time at home this season.
Paul Maholm knows his way around Great American Ballpark and pitched like it, using nine groundball outs to limit the damage to two runs in 5 2/3 innings.
“You know he wasn’t going to spook because he’s pitched here when he was with the Pirates, he’s pitched here with the Cubs,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “So he knows what he’s got to do.”
His batterymate, McCann, went 0-for-4 with a walk but seemed to have a settling effect on a Braves lineup and did his usual good work behind the plate.
“It felt great to get back out there with the team,” McCann said. “The first day couldn’t have gone any better.”
McCann showed a little of the patience he can bring back to the Braves lineup, by taking all six pitches in a first inning walk. The Braves still struck out nine times in the first five innings but chased Arroyo after 97 pitches, while taking a 4-2 lead.
“I saw the ball great,” McCann said. “But as far as hitting it, I was just a little bit behind or in front, so the timing isn’t going to be there. If I’m seeing the baseball like I am right now, I’m in a good place.”
Evan Gattis moved to left field upon McCann’s return and committed an error in his first game there as a major leaguer. But neither that nor a ball he failed to corral by Brandon Phillips ultimately cost the Braves after the Reds pulled within 3-2.
And Gattis doubled to left center field in the next half-inning to get the Braves’ run back and put them up 4-2.
Dan Uggla tripled for the second straight game and scored on a Simmons single. Not only does Uggla have the Braves first two triples of the year but in back-to-back games. He had gone two years and two teams between his previous two – tripling in 2009 for Florida and again in 2011, his first season with the Braves.
Even with McCann back and Simmons homering twice the Braves racked up another 15 strikeouts. They struck out seven consecutive times at one point – including six in the six outs recorded by reliever Alfredo Simon.
The Braves 11th strikeout, by Chris Johnson in the seventh inning, ensured 26,659 fans at Great American Ballpark a free personal pizza from LaRosa’s. That’s a promotion the local chain restaurant might regret by Wednesday’s finale.