In the sixth inning, when Tyler Flowers singled past the shortstop and third base coach Ron Washington emphatically waved Nick Markakis home, baseball fans across the south breathed a sigh of relief.
The Braves had scored a run, their second in a 24-inning span. And so the offense, mostly confined over the past week, did enough to secure five wins on a seven-game road trip, capped by Sunday’s two-hit 4-0 win in Miami.
“It’s huge,” manager Brian Snitker said. “That went from a decent road trip to a really good one.”
After opening the series with a 5-0 victory, the Braves were held scoreless Friday. They narrowly avoided a shutout the next day with Dansby Swanson’s ninth-inning solo home run in a loss. Dan Straily and Wei-Yin Chen, not known as constitutes of the higher pitching class, overwhelmed Braves hitters.
Earlier in the trip, they swept the Pirates, though they did so with three total runs in two of those games. As Freddie Freeman oft-reminds, they’re not going to score five or six runs every night. The bottom line is the result, which usually turns the Braves’ way through whatever means.
“If you’re going to struggle offensively, you hope that’s the time your pitching is on top of everything, and we’ve been able to do it that way,” Flowers said. “Hopefully we can just have all of it clicking at once. That’d be great.”
Sunday, the offense was continuing its jejuneness - until the seventh inning.
Charlie Culberson led off with a hit. Flowers was hit by a pitch, Swanson bunted them over and pinch-hitter Ozzie Albies walked. Then insurance came in the form of an error.
Ronald Acuna’s grounder cued up Derek Dietrich’s throwing error. The first baseman’s errant throw home gave the Braves a pair of runs. Ender Inciarte added another on a sacrifice fly.
Just like that, a one-run advantage ballooned to four. Each run was unearned.
Acuna opened the game with a single. Inciarte followed him with a ground-rule double. Freeman, arguably the National League’s MVP to this point, grounded out to starter Pablo Lopez. After an intentional walk to Nick Markakis, Johan Camargo and Culberson, both of whom are among the more reliable players with runners in scoring position, couldn’t concoct a run.
The fifth bestowed a comparable fate. Attempting to stage a two-out rally, Acuna singled and Inciarte walked to bring up Freeman, but he flew out to center. The Braves scattered six hits and five walks in 5-2/3 frames against Lopez, but built just a one-run lead.
Kevin Gausman, who lowered his ERA to 1.69 since joining the Braves, continued his shrewd dealings in his fifth start since he was acquired July 31. He pitched five easy frames, facing two over the minimum. He’d pitched eight shutout innings against the Pirates in his last start.
“I feel like I always get better as the year goes on,” he said, while adding the adjustment to the Braves and National League has been smooth. “I’ve always had good second halves. So I think it’s that and coming over here, feeling confident and comfortable.”
He’s thus far shaken the “underachiever” tag in a small sample size. He pounded the strike zone, generating a plethora of swings and misses. He kept Miami guessing, requiring 80 pitches through five. His change to permanently pitch out of the stretch appears brilliant.
“It looked like he had everything going,” Snitker said. “It’s a shame we didn’t score him many runs because it looked like he probably would’ve finished the game. He’s been really, really good since we got him.”
But Snitker was faced with a decision in the sixth. Flowers had just plated their first run. The Marlins walked Swanson to bring up the pitcher’s spot with two on and two out.
Snitker opted to pinch-hit Rio Ruiz, who drew a four-pitch walk. Acuna flew out to right to end the inning – the perfect scenario for Miami. Gausman allowed just two baserunners: a single and walk.
Snitker explained he liked the matchup and wanted to get aggressive in that situation after leaving Anibal Sanchez in to hit the night before.
“It is tough,” Snitker said. “You just hate, when a guy’s pitching like that, to not max him out. But after I thought we’d get to (Miami’s) bullpen yesterday and we didn’t, we just tried to go for it today.”
The Braves bullpen, including Jesse Biddle, Dan Winkler, Brad Brach and A.J. Minter protected his lead, collectively allowing one hit.
The Braves preserved their three-game lead over the Phillies, who defeated the Blue Jays Sunday, in the National League East.
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