As far as pressure situations in June go, there aren’t many more imposing than what Anthony Swarzak faced Tuesday night.
The Braves reliever entered in the eighth inning with a 3-2 lead. The Cubs had two on, none out with the middle of the order up. A sold-out Wrigley Field was loud and energetic to the point every player and coach referred to it as a postseason atmosphere.
Catcher Brian McCann’s message to Swarzak: “Here we go. Let’s have some fun.”
Swarzak got Kris Bryant to ground out to third, where Josh Donaldson tagged the base and fired to first for a double play. He struck out Anthony Rizzo on the ensuing six-pitch battle.
The Braves eluded major trouble and went on to win 3-2, with Luke Jackson getting the Cubs 1-2-3 to wrap up the ninth. It exuded every bit of the postseason vibe one would expect when two first-place teams clash at Wrigley in the summer.
It began with a Ronald Acuna home run on the game’s first pitch. The Braves wouldn’t collect another hit until the seventh, when McCann’s single was followed by Ozzie Albies skying a ball over the right-center wall. It wasn’t too long ago the Cubs were an exciting upcomer who captured interest across the baseball world. Now that they’re established champs, that mantle has shifted to the south.
“I feel like they’ve been here forever,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Acuna and Albies. “But they’re still learning things. They’re still learning how to do this. Two very talented young players who are doing great on-the-job training every time they go out there.”
Al-bies voting for @ozzie tomorrow. Will you? 😎https://t.co/tF2BPq04Q9 pic.twitter.com/zDtAVEoURs— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) June 26, 2019
Albies has hit .483 against the Cubs in 15 career games. He’s ridding a 13-game hitting streak against them. Acuna’s shot had a 46-degree launch angle, the highest launch angle recorded by a Braves player in the Statcast era (since 2015).
“For us, it’s fun to be able to go help the team every day,” Acuna said through team interpreter Franco Garcia. “This is the sport that we love. So for us, it’s a blessing to go out and help the team win any way we can.”
While all the retweets and likes will migrate towards the dynamic under-23 duo, Swarzak’s pivotal three outs were the microcosm of how much this team has improved since April. However the season unfolds for the mid-May addition, his run as the best reliever on the team during the Braves’ best stretch shouldn’t be forgotten.
They acquired him for relievers Arodys Vizcaino – out for the season – and Jesse Biddle, who’s since been designated for assignment. He’s allowed only one run with the Braves in 16 appearances.
“Wrigley Field, two very good teams going at it, game on the line; it doesn’t get any better than that,” Swarzak said.
The veteran reliever, who was with the Mets last season and the Mariners to begin this one, had high praise for Donaldson, who’s frustrated fans at times for not meeting lofty expectations (he’s since quieted most doubters, at least for the time being).
“Donaldson, just for me personally, he’s been keeping me going,” Swarzak said. “It’s been the bunt plays, it’s been the double plays. When I first got here, he made a big play ranging to his left. He’s unbelievable. The guy’s all over the place. To be able to play with a guy of his ability, to be able to take the game and change it, it’s unbelievable. … The guy can do anything he wants. I know right now the numbers are saying he’s not putting together the season at the plate he normally does, but when you look at what he’s doing to help our team win baseball games, he’s having an incredible year.”
After sweeping three games in Atlanta, the Braves needed just one win in Chicago to secure the season series. As the Dodgers run away with the National League’s best record, this head-to-head record could loom crucial as a homefield tie-breaker for a possible Braves-Cubs NLDS – not to look so far ahead just yet.
This wasn’t a glamorous win, as so many of them are. It was a pitchers’ duel in which the bats – as Snitker loves to say – grinded it out. It took some defensive gems, including Charlie Culberson’s sliding basket catch for the first out of the ninth.
Tuesday’s contest was different from the first, when the Braves fell behind early and appeared sapped in the fifth inning. Max Fried kept them in it, allowing only a two-run double to Willson Contreras. But outside Acuna’s lead-off homer, the Braves did little against Cubs starter Adbert Alzolay, who was making his first career start.
In the end, the Braves pulled off another gutsy win behind clutch pitching and their two superstars. Two kids who will be donning Braves uniforms for many years to come.
“I love the energy,” Snitker said. “I love watching those guys play. I love watching them warm up, the energy in the dugout, the enthusiasm with which they play. They have fun playing baseball. I said this past year, what a novel idea. Enjoy playing baseball.”
Dallas Keuchel makes his second start for the Braves Wednesday against a lineup that’s weaker against lefties. The Cubs will start Yu Darvish, whose 4.75 ERA accurately depicts his up-and-down season.
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