What Austin Riley has demonstrated in his nine games feels like a figment of baseball folklore. The Braves’ slugger is off to an unprecedented power rush; a run unequaled by anyone in the franchise’s well-stacked deck of Hall of Famers.
Riley reached five career home runs in the fewest games of any Braves player with his game-tying shot in the eighth inning Thursday. In the 13th inning, he delivered the game-winning single, and the Braves beat the Giants 5-4 to take three of four in northern California.
“It’s cool,” Riley said of his franchise-record pace. “It’s an honor. The last hit was even more special because it put the team ahead. That’s the goal, to win a championship, and come up here and win ballgames. To help them do that, it’s my ultimate goal.”
Dansby Swanson led off the final inning with a single. He stole second. After Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson couldn’t bring him in, Riley could - on an 0-2 count, he roped a ball down the first-base line, collecting his third RBI of the day.
Luke Jackson rebounded from his blown save two nights ago, shutting the door on the Giants in the bottom of the 13th. The Braves moved to 28-23, a season-best five games over .500.
Before Riley’s heroics, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner didn’t look like a guy who’d lost a step. He scattered six hits over six innings, allowing two runs. Donaldson and Ozzie Albies had two hits each against the 2014 World Series MVP.
The lefty made life especially hard on Charlie Culberson, who was manning right field during Nick Markakis’ rare day off. Culberson left three runners in scoring position, popping out to third and striking out in the fourth and sixth innings, respectively. He left eight runners on base in total.
“It’s always going to be tough with (Bumgarner),” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s so good. And he’s been hot, he’s hot against us. But we’ve faced a lot of really good pitchers and our guys have a way of grinding at-bats out and staying in the game.”
Bumgarner quieted an offense that was humming. The Braves had homered three times Wednesday, tied for their most in a game at Oracle Park. Riley’s shot was their eighth of the series, setting a record for their most in a set at the ballpark by the bay.
The Braves were hitting a homer every 17.17 at-bats in the series entering Thursday. For context, they did so once every 44.94 at-bats in their past experiences at Oracle, their lowest mark among all National League parks.
Catcher Tyler Flowers was responsible for their first long ball in the finale, a fifth-inning solo shot off “Mad Bum.” Riley’s homer was his third of the series. Ronald Acuna was also was responsible for two, both of which came Monday.
On the other side, Kevin Gausman kept pace with Bumgarner. The Braves’ starter allowed three runs over six innings, holding the Giants to four hits. They scored on a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly and Steven Duggar’s single that put San Francisco ahead in the fifth.
Gausman gave way to Sean Newcomb, who’d been excellent since converting to a reliever. But pinch-hitter Tyler Austin took him deep on a change-up down the middle, the first damage done against him in nine relief appearances (8-2/3 innings).
Following Austin’s homer, the bullpen was strong. Jacob Webb and Jerry Blevins paved the way to Touki Toussaint, who threw 2-1/3 scoreless innings. Jackson finished the final two frames.
All attention will center on Riley, who hit his 20th home run of the season, including Triple-A, on just May 23. The Braves themselves couldn’t have anticipated such an immediate impact within his first nine games.
“Mentally, he’s in a good spot. He’s got a good understanding,” Flowers said. “He’s into what he’s doing, his approach. He trusts himself. He doesn’t panic on pitches in, out, up, down or counts. He doesn’t let that dictate what he’s trying to do. It’s a lot like Freddie, JD (Donaldson) and Nick (Markakis). They’re the same way.”
Jackson, who calls Riley the “human cheat code,” added, with a laugh: “You expect it now. So now it’s going to look bad when we’re down three and he doesn’t hit a grand slam. If he keeps this up he’s going to put himself in a hole.”
The Braves won consecutive series in San Francisco for the first time since 1997-98. They swept a three-game set here in September.
As for this season, they still haven’t lost a series since being swept by the Dodgers in early May. They won a series in Arizona and took two of three from the Cardinals and Brewers before returning to the West Coast.
The Braves open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday. The Braves will start Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka and Julio Teheran through the weekend.
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