ST. LOUIS – When the Braves finally beat the Cardinals on Sunday, they did it by scoring multiple early runs and getting a strong performance from their starting pitcher, two elements sorely lacking during their recent slide from realistic hopes for wild-card contention.
R.A. Dickey didn’t give up a run until the seventh inning and Brandon Phillips hit a two-run homer for the Braves in a 6-3 series-finale win at Busch Stadium, where the Braves snapped a five-game skid and avoided being swept for the series and the season with their first win in six games against the surging Cardinals.
They built a 5-0 lead through 6 ½ innings and then hung on, the Cardinals getting a run in the seventh and two in the eighth before Jose Ramirez – the third Braves reliever in the inning – got out of a bases-loaded jam by striking out Greg Garcia and getting pinch-hitter Yadier Molina on a ground-out.
“It was nice to be able to tack on (runs) throughout the game and not just have one inning where you scored a run and then you kind of shut it down,” said Dickey (8-7), who gave up seven hits, one run and two walks in seven innings. “So it was a great community win all around and hopefully it’ll help us turn the page a little bit.”
Ender Inciarte had three hits for the Braves, who ended the Cardinals’ eight-game winning streak. It was only the seventh win in 25 games for the Braves, who slipped during that stretch from a high-water mark of 45-45 to a season-worst 12 games under .500 before Sunday.
Ramirez’s escape act in the eighth silenced a crowd of 44,534 that was standing, roaring, when Molina strode to the plate. It was the second time in as many innings the red-attired faithful were disappointed — Dickey worked out of trouble in the seventh, striking out pinch-hitter Dexter Fowler with two on before Matt Carpenter’s inning-ending ground out.
“Huge,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Dickey’s damage control after giving up a triple and single in the first three batters of the inning. “Right there, as hot as this team is, you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ You just hate to see something steamroll like that and them get momentum back. So that was a huge at-bat. The next one, too, getting Carpenter.”
Pitching on eight days’ rest — twice the usual amount – Dickey (8-7) didn’t face more than four batters in an inning until the seventh, by which point the Braves had built a 5-0 lead. The 42-year-old knuckleballer threw 100 pitches and worked seven innings for the ninth time this season.
In the Braves’ past 25 games, their starters have lasted seven innings just four times, three of those by Dickey.
Recently demoted closer Jim Johnson started the eighth inning for the Braves with a 5-1 lead and retired one of four batters he faced, giving up a Paul DeJong homer and consecutive singles before Snitker brought in left-hander Sam Freeman to face Kolten Wong.
Wong singled to drive in a run and Ramirez replaced Freeman, nicking the first batter he faced (Carson Kelly) with a pitch to load the bases. That raised the decibel level among a crowd of 44,534, which was ready to see their Cardinals — who had moved into a first-place tie with the Cubs in the NL Central Saturday — complete a sweep of the series and a seven-game homestand.
Ramirez had other ideas, retiring Garcia and Molina to get the game to closer Arodys Vizcaino, with the Braves first adding a run to the lead in the the ninth when Jace Peterson had a pinch-hit leadoff triple, his fourth hit in his past six pinch-hit at-bats, and scored on a wild pitch.
Vizcaino pitched a perfect ninth inning for his sixth save including four in as many chances since taking over the closer job at the beginning of August.
The Braves took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning on a bases-loaded RBI single from Danny Santana and a sacrifice fly from Ozzie Albies. Dansby Swanson followed with the fourth single of the inning off Cardinals starter Michael Wacha (9-5), but the line drive got to right field too quickly for the Braves to try to score and Dickey grounded out with bases loaded.
Inciarte led off the Braves’ fifth with a single and Phillips homered on the next pitch, his 10th and second in as many games in front of large Cardinals crowds that boo him lustily from his years with Central Division rival Cincinnati.
“It’s nice for ‘Boo’ Phillips to come back to St. Louis,” Phillips said. “That’s the name they gave me. I love playing here. The fans here are great, they really look out for their team…. You’ve got to do something for the fans to remember you. I love when they boo me. It just makes me step my game up a little bit more. Before they started booing me I didn’t play that good in St. Louis.”
Snitker said, “He evidently has done really well here. He’s left a good impact on these fans. I remember Chipper (Jones) used to get that in New York.”
The 4-0 lead represented the most runs the Braves scored in the first five innings since July 13, when they got nine in the first five innings against Alex Wood and the Dodgers in a 12-3 win at Dodger Stadium that seems a long time ago.
Inciarte almost singlehandedly manufactured another run in the seventh when he hit a leadoff single, collected his 15th stolen base and went to third on a Phillips groundout. After Freddie Freeman was walked intentionally, Nick Markakis hit a comebacker to the mound and reliever Sam Tuivailala threw to second base to try for the inning-ending double play. He got the out at second but Markakis was safe at first and Inciarte scored for a 5-0 lead.
The Cardinals, who scored eight runs or more in six consecutive wins before settling for a 6-5 win Saturday, didn’t get on the board Sunday until the seventh inning when Wong tripled with one out and scored on Kelly’s single. After Dickey walked Garcia, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez came out for a chat and left Dickey in to try to get out of the inning without further damage, which he did by striking out Fowler looking and inducing a Carpenter grounder.