The Braves play a 162-game schedule, each game counting as one. In the grand scheme, Game No. 152 carried no more weight than Game No. 52. But in the here and now – here being SunTrust Park after four wretched losses, now being September – this felt …
“Huge,” said Bobby Cox, who won 14 consecutive division titles as Braves manager. “This should get a little air back into us.”
“This was a really good thing,” said Brian Snitker, who manages these Braves. “The bullpen did a really good job. Touki (Toussaint) had a really good start. Freddie (Freeman) got going again. That was a big one at the right time.”
It wasn’t as if the Braves’ lead in the National League East had dwindled to nothing. They led Philadelphia by 5-1/2 games. For all the angst conjured up by those four losses, they still held the biggest lead of any NL team. Still, someone or something needed to stop the rot, and the pitcher they deployed Wednesday was a 22-year-old rookie making his fourth big-league start. And how did the Braves feel about this?
Just fine. They’ve seen Toussaint. They know what he can do. He went out and did it. He worked 5-2/3 innings and yielded two earned runs. He struck out eight. When he turned the game over to the relievers, the Braves led 5-2. They would win 7-3, pushing their lead to six games and shaving their magic number to six.
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Said Snitker: “I know how he goes about his business. I’ve seen his body of work so far. I feel pretty good giving the ball to him.”
Said catcher Tyler Flowers: “I think, ‘This guy’s got it.’ He can have one of his worst days and still be effective because of the weapons he has in his arsenal. You can’t teach that; you’ve either got it or you don’t.”
Said Freeman: “Whenever a guy gets on first base against him, they all say, ‘Man, this guy’s stuff is electric.’ And with the poise he’s got, you’re not surprised he has this kind of game.”
Toussaint walked a batter in the first and third – it’s now a requirement that every Braves pitcher has to walk somebody – and plunked Harrison Bader in the second. He got through the first and third by inducing double plays. He struck out Matt Adams looking to end the second. After yielding two singles in the fourth, he escaped by striking out Yadier Molina, who has seen everything, with a 96-mph four-seamer.
Coming in a homestand that has seen Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz have horrid turns, Toussaint’s big day was manna from heaven. Or, to be precise, from Arizona, courtesy of Dave Stewart, the former Diamondbacks general manager from whom John Coppolella plucked this prospect in 2015.
“Nice to know what winning feels like again,” said Freeman, who went 3-for-3 with a walk and drove in three runs. By his exalted standards, the Braves’ cornerstone has been ordinary since the All-Star break. He was not ordinary this day. His home run to left-center gave the Braves their first two-run lead since Friday night. His single to right made the score 4-1. His steal of second base enabled Ender Inciarte to steal home with the run that made it 5-1.
“I wouldn’t call this a must win,” Freeman said. “I’d say it was much-needed. It felt a little different around here the past couple of days. This was a nice boost.”
Alone among Braves, Freeman lived through the Epic Collapse of 2011. That year they led the wild-card chase – there was only one then – by 8-1/2 games entering September. They went 9-18 thereafter and were eliminated after losing to Philadelphia in the 13th inning of the 162nd game. That long night ended with Freeman hitting into a 3-6-3 double play. After something like that, you never breathe easy until the magic number is zero.
Let’s be clear: These Braves weren’t and aren’t anywhere close to that sort of flop. Heck, there’s a chance this race could be decided by Sunday night. If they take three of four this weekend, Philly will be eliminated. The second-place club, Flowers said, “wasn’t really on our minds today,” but we all know better. And heading into that series off a victory was, as Snitker said, “better than the alternative.”
On this one sunny day, we saw why these Braves are where they are. Their big hitter got big hits. Their young pitcher did what needed to be done. They played a smarter and cleaner game than the opponent. They didn’t let a four-game losing streak become something worse.
And when it was done, a former manager plopped down in a chair by the current manager’s desk and loosed a sigh of relief. “Snit!” Bobby Cox said, greeting his former third-base coach. And then: “Holy smoke!” Or words to that effect.