Josh Donaldson showed large crowds at SunTrust Park over the past 10 days why the Braves are paying him $23 million to play for them this season.
Donaldson’s 438-foot two-run homer in the sixth inning Wednesday night broke a 2-2 tie, and the Braves went on to a 7-2 win over the New York Mets to complete an 8-2 homestand.
Donaldson went 15-for-39 (.385) with six home runs and a 1.312 OPS on the homestand, homering in five of the last six games. He has 14 homers for the season and now looks very much like the hitter who was the 2015 American League MVP.
“If we’ve got Josh Donaldson back to being Josh Donaldson, this is going to be a fun year,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said after Wednesday’s win.
The Braves are 14-4 in June and now have a four-game lead in the National League East over the second-place Phillies, who were swept in a doubleheader by the Nationals.
“I feel like everything is going well for us right now,” Donaldson said.
Indeed, count all the things that went well Wednesday night: two-run homers by Donaldson and Freeman, six strong innings by starting pitcher Max Fried, three scoreless innings from the bullpen, two insurance runs on a pinch-hit double by Nick Markakis in the eighth inning.
But nothing looms larger than Donaldson’s torrid hitting of late.
“Right now, I’m seeing the ball really well and am able to identify pitches early and put good swings on them,” Donaldson said.
He has a nine-game hitting streak and has turbocharged an offense that averaged 8.4 runs per game on the homestand.
“I don’t know how much better it can get right now than what it is,” Donaldson said of the Braves’ recent play. “But with that said, we’re going to see how long it rides out for.”
When Donaldson was ejected following his first at-bat of the homestand June 10, he had a .237 batting average and .776 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) for the season. But by the time the homestand ended, he had raised his average to .260 and his OPS to .857.
The Braves took a 2-1 lead Wednesday on Freeman’s first-inning opposite-field homer and took control of the game on Donaldson’s sixth-inning homer, both against Mets starter Steven Matz. Fried pitched six strong innings for the Braves, allowing two runs on eight hits, and relievers A.J. Minter, Anthony Swarzak (0.65 ERA since the Braves acquired him from Seattle on May 20) and Luke Jackson shut down the Mets over the final three innings.
In his first eight games this season, including six starts, Fried had a 2.11 ERA and held opponents to a .217 batting average. In his next eight starts, he had a 6.10 ERA and a .318 opponents average. On Wednesday, his 15th start of the year, he looked more like his early-season self.
“Everybody is going to go through their ups and downs in their first full season,” Freeman said. “If (the recent past) was his down, we’ll take it. He was phenomenal tonight.”
“I felt like I put the team in a hole the last four-five starts,” Fried said. “Today … I just wanted to keep us in the game, not let any big innings happen.”
A potential turning point in the game came with the score tied 2-2 in the top of the sixth inning: The Mets had three consecutive singles against Fried but were denied a potential go-ahead run on a good throw to the plate by right fielder Charlie Culberson and a stirring tag on a leaping baserunner’s foot by on-the-ground catcher Tyler Flowers.
“That (situation) definitely could have swung the momentum against us,” Flowers said. “It was nice to get that done and get out of that inning.”
“Huge,” Braves manager Brian Snitker. “Charlie got rid of the ball, and Tyler had a great play to keep the ball and have the wherewithal to tag the runner. That was a tough play.”
The Braves gained four games in the NL East standings during the homestand, going from one game behind to four games in front. After hitting 26 home runs in the past 10 games, they leave town for the start of a three-game series in Washington on Friday night.
“Everybody on the club did something positive on that homestand,” Snitker said in parting.
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