Ender Inciarte attempted to bunt with two on and none out in the ninth, his Braves trailing 4-3 Sunday afternoon. He was unsuccessful.
Then faced with two strikes, he had to swing - and the ball still hasn’t landed.
Inciarte’s long three-run homer jump-started a six-run inning as the Braves pulled away for a 9-5 win. They secured their first series win in Arizona since 2012. They took three of four from a team more desperate than them in the postseason race. They did so with two extra-inning heart-stoppers and a late rally in the Sunday finale.
“I was trying to put the ball down, but he made a tough pitch at 2-1,” Inciarte said. “And after that I was just trying to hit it hard in the air somewhere because I wanted to move that runner. ... I got a good pitch to hit, and I was able to hit the ball like that.”
After Inciarte provided a lead, Lucas Duda hit a solo homer, his first with the Braves. Ronald Acuna tripled. Johan Camargo hit a rocket that exceeded even Inciarte’s shot. In the blink of an eye, a 4-3 deficit became a five-run lead.
“We had our heart ripped out four days ago (against Boston),” manager Brian Snitker said. “And we come in here against this really good ballclub and take a series. That’s pretty good. And today’s game just epitomizes who these guys are.”
That’s what these Braves can do. They’ve looked every bit of a playoff team in Phoenix, proving themselves the better of the two contenders. Tyler Flowers’ lead-off single in the ninth off Brad Boxberger gave them a breath of life.
They took it and ran. The Braves have the intangible gene that goes beyond explaining. When they wake up late in games, they explode. It’s what has them positioned for a playoff berth earlier than anyone could’ve expected.
“It feels good man,” Inciarte said of the series. “This team never quits. Just a really important series for us. That’s a good team over there. They can score a lot of runs. We just never quit. We’re always competing, always trying to be in the game. The ninth inning doesn’t mean it’s over for us.”
The Braves had no hits and three walks through five innings. Their best scoring chance came when Ronald Acuna walked and stole second in the fourth. But he got greedy, attempting to swipe third with Camargo in the box. He was thrown out.
Camargo drew a walk himself, but Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play. Arizona starter Robbie Ray issued his third walk to Ozzie Albies with two down in the next inning. He promptly struck out Inciarte.
Fittingly, Braves starter Touki Toussaint broke up the no-hit bid with one out in the sixth. One pitch later, Acuna launched a ball over the right-field fence for a lead. It was his 25th of the season, tying him for fifth-most in a year for a player under 21. He’s the seventh player to accomplish such.
And so the Braves, with no hits through 5-1/2 innings, had two knocks and two runs in a two-pitch span thereafter. It was Acuna, as usual, who lifted them out of an offensive rut.
Since moving to leadoff, Acuna’s hit .330 with an NL-leading 18 homers, 34 RBIs, 41 runs scored and 10 steals in 49 games. The Braves stumbled into the All-Star break, losing eight of 11 and falling behind the Phillies in the NL East.
Acuna has spearheaded their second half. The Braves since turned a half-game deficit into a 4.5-game advantage in the division. As Freeman and Nick Markakis work to solve their slumps, Acuna has helped keep the offense afloat.
He won’t win MVP, partly due to sample size, but he should certainly place in the top 10. It’s difficult to find several players who’ve been more pivotal to their team’s success than Acuna has been in the second half.
Toussaint’s third career start, and first on the road, was solid. Jon Jay tagged him for the first hit with one down in the third. Toussaint followed with a two-out walk to Paul Goldschmidt but coaxed an inning-ending flyout from A.J. Pollock.
He permitted another hit in the sixth, and it was the one that came back to bite him. Toussaint walked Daniel Descalso to put two on for the Diamondbacks. Luke Jackson relieved him with two out, and it fell apart from there.
Jackson faced four hitters, not registering an out. He allowed three hits and a walk. A 2-0 lead became a 4-2 deficit in the span for a few minutes. Each hit, especially Nick Ahmed’s game-tying two-RBI knock and pinch-hitter David Peralta’s go-ahead single, were essentially served on a tee.
Toussaint’s command wasn’t as sharp as he’d like, issuing five walks while throwing 56 of his 105 pitches for strikes. He’ll be left wondering how it could’ve played out if he finished the sixth, but Snitker made the theoretical safer move to lift him.
The Braves have a season-high-tying 4.5 game lead over Philadelphia with 19 games remaining. Their magic number is 16 as they head to San Francisco for three. The Phillies host the Nationals in that time.