NEW YORK – If Monday night’s 7-3 win against the Mets wasn’t the most improbable of the season for the Braves, then Noah Syndergaard and his New York teammates would probably like to know what was.
The Braves and previously winless rookie Aaron Blair, he of the 8.23 ERA before Monday, faced the Mets and ace Syndergaard in a series opener at Citi Field, with Syndergaard rolling in with a 2.43 ERA and lined up to pitch the National League Wild Card game in a couple of weeks.
Blair? Well, he pitched in the Triple-A Governor’s Cup playoffs last week, one of two starts he made for Gwinnett while working on significant adjustments in his delivery after Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell noticed flaws he’d developed.
So what happens Monday? Blair (1-6) doesn’t give up a hit until there are two out in the fourth inning and pitches six strong innings (four hits, two runs) for his first win in his 13th major league start. Syndergaard is replaced with two out in the fourth inning after giving up eight hits and five runs, including a Freddie Freeman opposite-field homer to start the third inning and Freeman’s two-run double in the fourth that pushed the lead to 5-0.
“It’s hard because we’re not playing for anything,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said, “but we’re playing to win, putting it out there and leaving it all out there every day.”
The Braves won their fourth consecutive game at Citi Field, pulling to nearly even (8-9) in the season series against the NL wild-card leaders and snapping the Mets’ five-game home winning streak snapped.
Freeman continued to scorch with four hits and three RBIs and rookie Dansby Swanson added three hits and three RBIs for the Braves, who took the series opener from the NL wild-card leaders to run their winning streak to three games, after taking the last two games to win a weekend series against the NL East-leading Nationals.
“You know going into this game it’s going to be a tough game,” said Freeman, whose opposite-field homer to start the third inning pushed the lead to 3-0 and extended his hitting streak to 23 games and on-base streak to 39 games, career-bests and longest active streaks in the majors. His double was also an opposite-field shot.
“(Syndergaard) is one of the best pitchers in the game,” Freeman said. “We were able to get on the board early in the second inning, with them getting on base and Dansby (and Inciarte) getting them in with some big hits with runners in scoring position. Once you get one or two you feel like you can get some more.”
It was the third-shortest start of Syndergaard career and second-briefest that wasn’t by ejection. And once the Braves staked Blair to an early lead, he protected it.
“He was on the mark better,” Snitker said after Blair threw 56 strikes in 86 pitches and issused just one walk with four strikeouts. “Velocity kind of picked up every now and then. I liked what I saw.”
One wouldn’t have known watching that Freeman was operating on almost no sleep after spending Sunday night in Atlanta with his wife and their newborn son in their first night at home, then catching a commercial flight to New York. He his 31st homer — eight more than his career-best before this season — and his 13th during the on-base streak. He’s hit .380 during the 38-game streak, second-longest in the majors this season and longest by a Brave since Chipper Jones’ 41-game on-base streak in 2008.
Freeman added a double in the fourth and a pair of singles, continuing a torrid pace he started in mid-June and ramped up further since the Aug. 2 addition of Matt Kemp to the lineup.
“The guy’s an animal,” Snitker said of Freeman, who has hit .344 with 58 extra-base hits (22 homers) and 65 RBIs in 86 games since June 12. “He can just hit. I mean, and (hit) anybody. The way he can (hit) the other way (to left field) – he hits them balls like right-handers.”
The Braves’ eight hits and five runs against Syndergaard in 3 2/3 innings were tied for the most hits he allowed all season, in the fewest innings in which he’d given up that many. Before Monday, he was 4-1 with a 1.36 ERA and .175 opponents’ average in his past six starts, with 42 strikeouts and 12 walks in 39 2/3 innings.
In his first time facing the Braves this season, he had five strikeouts with three walks and surrendered two extra-base hits and three RBIs to the sizzling Freeman.