With Cliff Lee on the mound for Philadelphia, the Braves figured they couldn’t afford many mistakes or have much go against them if they hoped to win Friday night’s series opener at Citizens Bank Park.
Well, they made plenty of mistakes, and little went their way. Until the seventh inning.
The Phillies scored four in the first three innings and built a 5-0 lead after six, but the Braves knocked Lee out of the game in a four-run seventh inning highlighted by Dan Uggla’s towering three-run homer.
The seemingly improbable rally against Philadelphia’s surging ace wasn’t enough, and the Braves fell 5-4 for their third loss in a row since a four-game winning streak. Their NL East lead over second-place Washington was cut to five games, down from seven two days ago.
“It was a weird game,” Uggla said after the Braves lost for the 16th time in their past 24 road games. “We didn’t play very well. Not to take anything away from them, but a couple of plays just didn’t really go our way. Could have been a different ballgame.”
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Braves catcher Gerald Laird and manager Fredi Gonzalez were ejected by home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez in the third inning, after Laird struck out on three consecutive called strikes and used a couple of expletives to tell Hernandez what he thought of the third one.
The Braves thought was high, like a called strike against Simmons to start the game, when catcher Humberto Quintero threw the ball back to the pitcher not expecting the pitch to be called a strike.
“I may have went too far, but you only can take so much,” Laird said. “And after watching (Simmons’) first at-bat taken … It’s uncalled for. When the catcher throw it back to the pitcher on strike three, obviously he’s saying one thing: That it’s not even close. Us being catchers, we know what strikes are, and we throw it back to the pitcher if it’s not a strike. He threw it back to the pitcher and he rung him up. If you look at that, it just goes to show you what kind of night (Hernandez) had.”
“You’ve got a very good pitcher in Cliff Lee, one of the best in the league. And when you go to the plate to face a guy like that, you want to battle. It’s frustrating to go compete against him and he doesn’t have to throw strikes to get you out. I mean, that makes it even harder. He doesn’t need any help. He’s been one of the best in the league.”
Paul Maholm (9-7) moved up a day in the Braves’ rotation to give Tim Hudson extra rest, and the left-hander got knocked around early before settling in for six innings. Maholm was charged with nine hits and five runs (four earned), including Quintero’s two-run homer in the second inning and Ryan Howard’s solo homer in the fourth.
Laird didn’t think Maholm got the same liberal strike zone that Hernandez gave Lee, though Maholm downplayed that.
“The strike zone wasn’t that big of a deal while I was pitching,” he said. “There were a couple of close ones, but I made some mistakes and they hit them hard. And obviously there were a few plays that we could have taken care of, but it’s one of those days where you battle and just see how long you can go. I wasn’t sharp by any means, but like I said, just made a few bad pitches that they took advantage of.”
Howard has career-highs of 43 homers and 121 RBIs in 138 games against the Braves, including six homers and 14 RBIs in his past 12.
When Laird struck out to start the third inning, and turned to exchange words with the notoriously confrontational Hernandez, Gonzalez tried to intercede, but was too late. Laird got his money’s worth after getting tossed, striding quickly back to the plate to go face-to-face with Hernandez and shouting until Gonzalez got between them.
“I basically just told him to lock it in, this is the big leagues” Laird said of his initial comments to Hernandez. ” We play in front of a lot of people. A lot of people watch us. And you just want it to be done right. And be accountable for your part…. With him, I’ve had stuff in the past with him.”
When Gonzalez continued the debate with Hernandez after the Laird ejection, the manager got ejected.
“The first at-bat by Simmons was the one,” Gonzalez said. “When the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and you call a strike three, it kind of makes you wonder. And I think Quintero was trying to throw it back to the pitcher again when Laird struck out. But Angel said those balls were on the top of the strike zone and were strikes.”
That was the closest thing to sparks the Braves produced through six scoreless innings against Lee (10-2), who allowed four hits and no walks with four strikeouts in that span. But the tide turned suddenly in the seventh, when Lee hit Freddie Freeman with a pitch to start the inning.
Chris Johnson followed with a single, and Uggla launched a 2-2 fastball to the seats well beyond the left-center wall for his 15th home run, cutting the lead to 5-3. One out later, Brian McCann doubled and Reed Johnson added a pinch-hit single to chase Lee from the game.
Simmons greeted reliever J.C. Ramirez with a sacrifice fly that trimmed the deficit to 5-4, and Jason Heyward walked to give the Braves potential tying and go-ahead runs on base. But the rally ended when Justin Upton struck out, making him 21-for-120 (.175) this season with runners on base.
“We had one good inning tonight, where we put some pressure on them,” McCann said. “Cliff Lee was on his game. He was able to use both sides of the plate, mix speeds up and down. He was on his game until that (seventh) inning.”
The Phillies had pushed the lead to 5-0 in the sixth when Delmon Young scored from first base on Quintero’s two-out double to right. The relay throw was a bit high and beat Young to the plate, but McCann caught it in the end of his mitt and Young knocked it loose when McCann applied the tag.
“It was one of those plays, I should have made it,” McCann said. “I jumped up and caught it. I guess it snow-coned a little bit more than I wanted it to, and when he slid in it kicked out.”
Joey Terdoslavich’s two-out single in the ninth inning off closer Jonathan Papelbon was the Braves rookie’s first major league hit in his second at-bat since being called up Thursday from Triple-A Gwinnett, but Andrelton Simmons popped out foul to end the game.
Lee won his ninth consecutive decision despite allowing four runs and eight hits in 6 1/3 innings, the first time in 13 starts that he lasted fewer than seven innings or allowed more than three earned runs. The lefty is 9-0 with a 2.41 ERA in that period.
“When Cliff Lee is on his game, you kind of weather the storm,” McCann said. “We were able to score four off Cliff Lee. You take that as a positive, I guess.”
The four earned runs matched the Braves’ total output in their previous six starts against Lee, who was 4-1 with a 0.78 ERA in those games. He now has 49 strikeouts with three walks in 52 1/3 innings in his past seven starts against the Braves.