Donaldson, Keuchel power Braves to first win of second half

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel works against a San Diego Padres batter during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, July 12, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Credit: Gregory Bull

Credit: Gregory Bull

The Braves expressed confidence they’d start the second half on a good note. The players stated it with more certainty than hope. What they showed in the first half was only the start, they opined. And they picked up right where they left off Friday night.

Dallas Keuchel tossed seven one-run frames. Josh Donaldson homered twice and had four RBIs. Ronald Acuna produced one of the loudest shots of his career. In all, the Braves won 5-3 in San Diego, beginning the second half on a strong note.

“We played a really good game overall,” Donaldson said. “Keuchel set the tone. He did a great job. I was fortunate enough to put a couple good swings on some pitches and hit them out of the park.”

A team once criticized for its inactivity on the market, the Braves’ free-agent additions were spotlighted under a typical gorgeous San Diego night. Offensively, it began with Donaldson, who reached the 20-homer plateau, further strengthening his case for a multi-year deal when he returns to free agency next winter.

Worth noting: Donaldson’s numbers usually bump up a notch in the second half. In 400 career games after the All-Star break, he’s earned a slash line of .281/.384/.523. That’s opposed to .267/.354/.494 in 570 games before the break.

“You never really know about a player until you play with him,” Keuchel said of Donaldson, who he faced throughout the entirety of their American League careers. “Facing him was always a challenge, even with Oakland before he went to Toronto. I mean, he won an MVP, so you can’t really talk enough about the guy. Just getting to know him now in the clubhouse, he brings a different type of personality, atmosphere. He’s locked in every day.

“I think some of the guys really look at him and notice how he prepares himself. That’s what you need for some of the young guys to really prepare and take their talent to the next level. Can’t say enough about him already and I hope to play with him a little while longer.”

Donaldson, whose slow start feels so long ago, has 12 home runs over his last 26 games, the highest total in the majors over that time. He’s become the exact component the Braves wanted in the middle of their order.

Keuchel, signed just last month, has gone seven or more innings in three consecutive starts. He owns a 3.09 ERA through five outings. Thus far, the Braves should be thrilled with their one-year, $13 million pact. The savvy southpaw is giving them the consistency they desired behind All-Star Mike Soroka in the rotation.

“The consistency, the reliability; he’s one of those guys that when he tows the rubber, you feel like you’re going to win the game,” manager Brian Snitker said. “There’s never any panic. He stays in the moment. Goes pitch-to-pitch, hitter-to-hitter. It’s pretty good.

“It’s awesome. It’s the first time I’ve had one of those (pitchers with such a resume). We’ve had really good starts, really good pitchers, but he just has a track record. Everybody else is developing a track record. He’s got it. He’s good for our club.”

Keuchel still wasn’t totally patting himself on the back. He wants to work in more breaking pitches, but his fastball was so effective there wasn’t an optimal time for it.

“I’m going to take this outing, but at the same time, I’d like to get the breaking ball and change-up established earlier,” Keuchel said. “It just didn’t really present itself. So I’m nitpicking here, but that’s just who I am. I try to be as good as I can be.”

After allowing six earned runs in his first 10-2/3 innings (two starts), Keuchel has allowed five earned runs over his past 21-1/3 frames. He’s struck out 17 and walked 10.

Keuchel expects at least seven innings every outing. He’s satisfied with the past three starts but hopes to go eight or even nine in one of his next few opportunities. That inning-eater mentality shouldn’t go overlooked.

“I think it’s still undervalued in today’s game,” Donaldson said. “Guys who can go out there and go seven, eight innings. In today’s game, it’s ‘Hey, if you can go out there and give us five, give up one or two (runs), walk five and punch out 10, you had a great outing.’ And that’s not his game. I appreciate it as a guy who’s behind him because he keeps us involved.”

Friday represented the Braves’ best formula. Their starter worked deep into the game, making just one mistake (that Manny Machado planted into the seats) and sparing their bullpen a heavier workload. The offense came via three (hard-hit) homers, not exactly a foreign concept to this group.

The Braves hit 143 home runs before the All-Star break, a franchise record. Donaldson’s first homer, a three-run blast, came in the first inning. His second, a solo shot, came in the eighth.

Acuna extended the lead to four with a gigantic solo shot in the fifth that landed in the second deck of left-center. The ball traveled 455 feet and exited at 114 mph, the third-longest and second-hardest-hit homer of his career.

The Braves go for a series win Saturday when Julio Teheran opposes Joey Lucchesi. They haven’t won a series in San Diego since 2011.

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