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Toussaint, Acuna help Braves to fourth straight win

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Touki Toussaint, top, delivers to New York Mets' Jeff McNeil in the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Touki Toussaint, top, delivers to New York Mets' Jeff McNeil in the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

For the first time this season, the Braves could be satisfied with a starting pitcher not named Mike Soroka or Max Fried. Newly named starter Touki Toussaint provided the breath of fresh air.

Backed by an offense that’s been stellar at Truist Park, Toussaint pitched four scoreless innings, helping the Braves to a 7-1 victory over the Mets Saturday night.

The Braves have won four consecutive games and are 4-0 at home to begin the season. They swept the Rays in a two-game series and have defeated the Mets twice to begin a four-game set. They’ve scored seven or more runs in three of those games.

Most encouraging about Saturday was Toussaint, who was thrown into the rotation upon Mike Foltynewicz’s dismissal. Toussaint last pitched on Monday in relief of Foltynewicz, when he allowed six runs over 2-2/3 innings.

The 24-year old rebounded strongly against the Mets, giving the Braves confidence they can deploy him again in five days. In only his second start since 2018, the right-hander allowed three hits over four scoreless innings.

“You look at something like this and think the hard work is paying off,” said Toussaint, who had to prepare himself away from the team for almost the entirety of camp after testing positive for COVID-19. “This is a building block that I’m going to use to keep trying to get more innings in.”

It wasn’t the prettiest outing, but how Toussaint navigated trying situations was the primary takeaway. He entered the third inning having allowed one baserunner in each of the first two innings, but back-to-back one-out walks put the Mets in position to capitalize with the middle of their order up.

Instead, Toussaint coaxed a double play out of Pete Alonso, the reigning rookie of the year and one of baseball’s best sluggers. Toussaint pitched his way into trouble again in the fourth when the Mets began the inning with consecutive hits.

After striking out Yoenis Cespedes, Toussaint walked Dominic Smith to load the bases with one down. He struck out Wilson Ramos on three pitches, the final of which was his noted curveball, and drew a grounder from Amed Rosario to end the inning and his night.

Toussaint threw 74 pitches (45 strikes). His inconsistent fastball command created two troublesome circumstances, but he remained collected and found his way out of both. To this point, such ability has eluded Braves starters not named Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

“A lot of traffic, but the stuff was good,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Just a little (erratic) sometimes. It’s the second time – he didn’t even get a real live game before we threw him in one. It was so rushed to get him going. But you see the stuff. The kid has stuff. I’m glad he went four innings. If he’d have gone five, that’d have been an added plus, but I was thinking if he went four innings, that’d be good for him.”

Coming off a rough 2019 season, Toussaint has a chance to greatly help the Braves’ current rotation – which has been unimpressive beyond the top two – and perhaps solidify a role within the organization moving forward.

Notes from Saturday:

- Ronald Acuna might have finally rediscovered himself. He had two hits and two RBIs, including a double – which produced his first RBI of the season – and his first home run. The sixth-inning homer left his bat at 114 mph and traveled 415 feet.

After the solo shot, Acuna was overjoyed, dancing in the dugout and even doing his own curtain call to the cardboard fans at Truist Park.

“You want to keep as many traditions as possible, even if the fans aren’t here,” Acuna said via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “You still want to embody them, keep them going. It’s a shame we don’t have them here, but we wanted to keep it going and make it as fun as possible as always.

“It’s been a slow start to the season. It was very welcomed to hit that home run. So I was obviously happy. Hopefully we can keep that momentum going forward.”

Acuna was so ecstatic for good reason. As he referenced, it’s been a difficult start for the popular MVP pick: Acuna was hitting .167 while striking out in 18 of his 36 at-bats before the home run. He’s scored six runs, including two on Friday.

First baseman Freddie Freeman and Snitker expressed optimism that Acuna’s breakout was near. If he builds off Saturday, obviously an already potent Braves offense will jump another level. The Braves have little time to spare in the shortened season; Acuna needs to hit his stride quickly.

“I could feel it the last few days,” Snitker said. “Here and there, there were signs. He’s been working hard, I know that. He’s here early every day. That’ll be a nice shot in the arm if we can get him doing what he does.”

Toussaint added: “He’s unreal. I thought (the homer) was going to hit off the wall but it just kept going. I’ve been fortunate to play with him my whole career. I’ve seen (his enthusiasm), I’m still fortunate. He’s a superstar. He knows that now too, but I’m glad everyone is seeing it and appreciating him.”

- While it’s only nine games, Marcell Ozuna has exceeded expectations in replacing Josh Donaldson as the clean-up hitter. Ozuna launched a two-run homer in the first off Mets starter and former Cardinals teammate Michael Wacha, his third of the season. He was 2-for-4 on the night.

“This guy is a legit fourth-place hitter,” Snitker said. “He’s really good protection for Freddie. He’s hit every year he’s been in the league. He’s that one guy you’d see who hits all the good pitching. I remember the first time we saw him in Orlando and he hit one over the batter’s eye in spring training. The guy can hit.”

- On the subject of hot starts, shortstop Dansby Swanson singled to start the second inning. He has a nine-game hitting streak, reaching base in every game this season. Swanson also has two stolen bases after swiping one Saturday.

- Josh Tomlin became a crucial member of last year’s bullpen. The innings eater was back at it Friday, pitching 2-1/3 perfect innings after Toussaint and Luke Jackson. Tomlin began his outing by working out of an inherited bases-loaded, two-out jam.

“He’s something else, man,” Snitker said. “He saved our rears all last year. He competes, he’s so efficient. He’s a great guy to have down there, that’s for sure. … I like him coming in in jams and facing the heart of the order. I hate to just use him up in a long role. He could be so valuable in those situations also in the middle of a game. He can do anything, really.”

- Sign of the times: The Braves are one win away from securing at least a split of the season series against the Mets. The teams play only 10 times, and the Braves have already taken four of the first five meetings.

It’s an important development given how close the National League East could be in the 60-game campaign. While the Mets are off to a mediocre start, should they catch fire as they did a year ago, these early victories might wind up the difference.

The Braves and Mets will play the next two days but only have one more series remaining, which occurs Sept. 18-20. It will conclude the Braves’ final road trip of the season.

- Kyle Wright will make his second start Sunday against top Mets pitching prospect David Peterson. Wright allowed five runs over 2-2/3 over his first start. Peterson allowed two runs on seven hits across 5-2/3 innings against the Red Sox in his previous outing, which was his major-league debut.