Albies, Newcomb light it up, Braves lead NL East by five games

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Sean Newcomb #15 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the San Francisco Giants during the first inning at AT&T Park on September 10, 2018 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Credit: Jason O. Watson

Credit: Jason O. Watson

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Sean Newcomb #15 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the San Francisco Giants during the first inning at AT&T Park on September 10, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

The Braves’ heads-up baserunning has been crucial in their leap to contention. Ozzie Albies, among the more aggressive runners on the team, illustrated how dangerous his team can be on the paths Monday night.

Albies appeared to hit a routine single to begin the seventh, but sprinted to second as Gorkys Hernandez’s throw sailed over first baseman Brandon Belt. Albies ended up at third, scoring when Dansby Swanson popped into the clear San Francisco night sky.

Two innings later, Albies came up again. He hit a ball into the deepest part of the AT&T Park outfield – Triples Alley, as it’s known – again reaching third and knocking in the Braves’ third run.

Suddenly, the team that couldn’t win in the West had taken four of their first five this trip, with its latest touch a 4-1 result over the Giants. The Braves haven’t taken a series in San Francisco since 2011, being outscored 104-70 in those 21 games.

“It was just a clean game,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Defensively, a lot of really good things offensively. Executing different situations. This was a nice clean game for us.”

Sean Newcomb and Dereck Rodriguez matched pitch-for-pitch, leaving room for Albies to snatch the spotlight. As Ronald Acuna has exploded onto the scene, Albies’ star has faded. Monday was a reminder how impactful he can be.

The 21-year-old finished with a double, triple, RBI and a pair of runs scored. Even as his bat slumped, he played exceptional defense and provided threatening speed when he does reach.

“I just have to get back locked in,” Albies said. “Missing (pitches) sometimes. You have to understand the game too. It’s baseball. You’ll probably be a little tired without even knowing. I don’t feel it, but I probably am. Just trying to make some adjustments and get backed locked in. It’s getting back, and hopefully it stays too.”

Twenty of Albies’ 22 homers came in the first half, as did 55 of his 68 RBIs. The Braves’ second-half surge has come in spite of his progress, but reviving any part of his earlier form, which included 22 extra-base knocks in April and a spot on the All-Star team, would be a boon as the Braves prepare for the postseason.

Newcomb’s command improved as the game went deeper. He didn’t issue a walk for the first time since April 8 – an encouraging development after his recent lapses.

Newcomb walked five in his last start, when he only went 4-1/3 innings in a loss to the Red Sox. He’d allowed nine earned runs over his past two starts (8-1/3 innings), and finished July with an ERA over 5.00.

Since his near no-hitter against the Dodgers, which required 134 pitches, Newcomb posted a 6.67 ERA in his past six starts. But the old Newcomb returned Monday, the starter whose mastery earned him All-Star consideration in the first half.

“He was effective with his fastball again, that’s always the big key with him,” Snitker said. “Breaking stuff was OK, changup was OK, but just the swing and miss with the fastball is the big thing.”

He permitted only three hits in six innings, his lone blunder coming when Gorkys Hernandez and Austin Slater’s hits plated a run. He struck out eight – not an uncommon occurrence, but complemented by his zero in the walk column.

“I think I was just attacking hitters the whole time, trying to make them feel uncomfortable,” Newcomb said. “Just get up in the zone. That was all I was focusing on. ... Just a mentality. Just worry about one pitch at a time and locking it in.”

Snitker made the tough call to lift Newcomb at 93 pitches for pinch-hitter Rio Ruiz. He exited with a 2-1 lead, retiring the final 11 hitters he faced.

Snitker’s bullpen, seemingly for the first time in a while, made him feel brilliant. Shane Carle, Jonny Venters and A.J. Minter pitched perfect frames. Braves pitchers combined to strike out 11 and walk none.

“It was nice,” Snitker said. “And it was good they all had efficient innings. We didn’t have to use a ton of guys. We had three or four guys who got much-needed rest tonight.”

The Phillies’ game with Washington was postponed due to weather, giving the Braves an additional half-game in the standings. Their 5-game lead is their largest of the season.