The Braves trailed 4-1 after an inning. Max Fried, normally a stallion, was off his mark. The offense’s left-on-base total seemed to exceed PNC Park’s attendance. Scribes began writing their postgame analysis of a disheartened road loss.
Yet “Big River” Austin Riley loomed over the land of Three Rivers. The unlikely has become the possible, sometimes the inevitable, since he joined the Braves’ lineup in mid-May. Riley, the reigning National League rookie of the month, swatted a three-run home run in the seventh inning that awakened a sleeping giant.
Another pair of homers later, the Braves defeated the Pirates 12-5 on Tuesday night. After giving up five runs in the first two innings, Braves pitchers threw up zeroes the remainder of the night.
“It shows the drive of the team,” Riley said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
For Pittsburgh fans, that will be as uninspiring a defeat as one could imagine in June. For Braves fans, it could be regarded as another ho-hum comeback. Pulling such results out of their hats is the norm.
Down 5-3, Riley pummeled an outside slider from Kyle Crick into the right-field seats (Riley admitted afterwards he didn’t even know who was pitching – he embodies “see ball, hit ball”).
“There he goes again,” manager Brian Snitker recalled thinking after Riley’s home run. “That guy is really good. He doesn’t try to do too much. He’s just up there taking a good path.”
It awarded the Braves their first advantage since a shallow 1-0 lead in the first. They – meaning the much-maligned relief unit – didn’t allow Pittsburgh to reset the tally.
Josh Donaldson put another trio of runs on the board with his own rocket in the eighth. For good measure, Freddie Freeman plastered his 15th long ball of the year, a two-run bomb, in the ninth.
The eruption spared Fried, who allowed five runs in four innings, a loss. He was also hit in the left leg by a comebacker but avoided injury. The southpaw defined reliability in his first 10 starts, though his last two have left much to be desired: 9-2/3 innings, 18 hits, nine runs. He’s struck out six and walked five.
“That’s what good teams do,” Freeman said regarding the offense making up for Fried’s off night. “As much as we want Maxie great 33 times out, it’s just not going to happen. That was awesome for us to have a game like that. (Fried) has been great for us all year, doesn’t have his best stuff, and we were able to bail him out, score 10-plus runs. We kept going no matter what it was.”
Riley has 25 RBIs in his first 18 games, making him the second-fastest player to reach the 25-RBI plateau since it became a statistic in 1920. If it appears he’s setting a new standard with every demolition, it’s because he is.
“There’s not much more you can say about Austin Riley,” Freeman said. “What he’s doing, you’re almost starting to expect it when he gets into big situations. That pitch had to be four or five inches off the plate. And he just put it into the seats. It’s special what he’s doing.”
From past Braves Hall of Famers to Hall-of-Fame-worthy talents of today, no individual can equal Riley’s feat. Even modern rookie explosions – think Jeff Francoeur, Jason Heyward, even Ronald Acuna – pale in comparison.
It won’t last forever. Riley will level out, presumably. But the Braves are happy to reap the benefits in the meantime.