It was more than four hours before the first pitch, and Brian Snitker had started his routine, pregame serenity walk.
Out of the clubhouse. Down a corridor. Through the doors and of SunTrust Park. Down Battery Avenue. Over the bridge that looped over the interstate. Down the parkway and onto a trail and that loops near the Chattahoochee River, where folks will be lounging or snoozing or possibly fishing, but certainly not getting ready to be second-guessed by thousands at work.
“I need it,” the Braves’ manager said Saturday, as we crossed paths outside the stadium. “It gives me a chance to sort of detox. Clear my mind. Get away from everybody.”
A few minutes later, he was off. Don’t get between a man and his serenity.
These days, Snitker must hear gentle wind chimes with every stride. The Braves are in first place in the National League East. In June. Even with losing to Washington Saturday in 14 innings 5-3, they won the first two games of this “showdown” series against the Washington Nationals, who were the overwhelming division favorites and landed in Atlanta with a record of 21-6 since late April. The Braves’ starting pitchers in the first three games -- Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and Brandon McCarthy – have outshined the vaunted Nats and looked like living memories of great rotations of Braves’ past.
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“It’s just, you want to do it all year,” Snitker said. “We’ve been really good so for, but that’s why I keep talking about staying in the present. Just win today. Don’t look behind or ahead. ... Coming into this season were a lot of questions. Some were about the offense. You didn’t know what the young pitchers were going to do. The second-year players -- how will they adjust? They’ve answered the questions really well.”
The third game of this series didn’t end well. McCarthy said he was gassed after six innings in the humidity and reliever Sam Freeman was dinged by Juan Soto for the game-tying homer to lead off the seventh. Snitker, who, like most managers, constantly gets criticized for bullpen management, was determined not to use Dan Winkler or Arodys Vizcaino, believing both needed a day off.
So others got the Braves to the 14th before Snitker was forced to go to Miguel Socolovich, who shouldn’t be pitching at this level and he proved it. Three hits, a walk and two runs later, the Braves lost. Max Scherzer, missed in the rotation this week, nonetheless tortured the Braves with a pinch hit single and scored the winning run.
“Go figure,” Snitker said.
But the Braves (34-24) still have a half-game lead on the Nationals, and their starters stayed on a roll. McCarthy – one of the actual usable assets acquired in the Matt Kemp salary dump in the winter – pitched six solid innings and allowed only two runs and four hits before exiting with a 3-2 lead. His lone hiccup was allowing a two-run smash by Michael Taylor in the second inning.
The decision to lift McCarthy after six innings and 84 pitches backfired. But the pitcher said later he was “tired. Humidity really does something to me. It’s a grind for me to get through it. ... You start to lose your breath. I don’t think it’s the wrong call to take me out.”
McCarthy’s performance followed gems by Newcomb and Foltynewicz. Newcomb went seven innings and allowed two runs in a 4-2 win Thursday. Foltynewicz threw a complete-game, two-hit shutout Friday (4-0), striking out 11.
Add it up: The three-game totals for the Braves’ starters: four runs and 10 hits allowed with three walks and 20 strikeouts in 22 innings for an earned run average of 1.64.
The Nationals went into this series with a clear advantage in starting pitching, or at least it seemed that way. On paper, and usually on the mound, most teams can’t rate with Scherzer (1.92 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (2.10), Tanner Roark (3.17), Stephen Strasburg (3.13) and Jeremy Hellickson (2.30).
As Freddie Freeman said Thursday, “The No. 3 on their staff is practically a No. 1 on most teams.”
But the Braves have proved something in this series. They can hang.
McCarthy being lifted shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He turns 35 years old next month, was worn down and has a long, gory history of injuries, including Tommy John surgery. Why push it?
McCarthy’s frequent stays on the disabled list didn’t scare off general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was with the Dodgers when McCarthy was left off the playoff roster in the first two rounds, but added for the World Series.
“He’s had an injury history but there wasn’t really anything lingering,” Anthopoulos said. “We wouldn’t have added him to the World Series roster if there were any concerns. We knew if he could stay healthy (in Atlanta), he would give us a chance to win games.”
The Braves viewed McCarthy as needed balance on a pitching staff with so much youth and inexperience, a potential stabilizing influence.
“Very cerebral, very smart guy,” Anthopoulos said. “Having somebody like that around is always a good thing.”
The good things continue for the Braves.
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