Utilityman Charlie Culberson, who wasn’t even set to play Tuesday, corralled a ball through the light San Francisco breeze towards the renowned lit-up Coca-Cola bottle in left field.
The home run came just moments after Juan Soto’s gave Washington a 7-6 lead over Philadelphia, quite possibly ripping the remaining soul out of the fading Phillies.
A couple hours later, Mike Foltynewicz and his Braves completed their 4-1 thrashing of the Giants. Foltynewicz notched one of the best starts of his career, going the full nine and allowing just one run with two down in the ninth.
On the East coast, the Phillies were swept in their doubleheader. In the span of a day, the Braves assembled a 6 1/2-game lead in the National League East and shrunk their magic number to 12.
“Just focus on tomorrow,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I’ve been telling the guys that for the entire season. The only thing we can control is tomorrow. Just come out and play another good ballgame and try to finish it off.”
With only 17 games left, the leader’s opponent essentially shifts to the calendar. The Braves and Phillies square off seven of the last 10 games, but the Braves are building a cushion that’d demand near perfect play from their northern rivals.
Perfect play wouldn’t describe the present Phillies, who’re 0-10-1 in their last 11 series, and an uninspiring 11-22 since sitting in first place Aug. 5. Their defense remains historically grim, their bullpen is taxed and their offense simply doesn’t have enough to overcome it.
The Braves might have the luxury of a mediocre finish and still winning the East. That said, they’re not coasting into the postseason, and the NL home-field advantage is within their reach. Plus if the Phillies keep it close enough and fare well in the looming four-game series in Atlanta, perhaps the final week is interesting.
It doesn’t look like the Braves plan to take their foot off the gas. Tuesday’s win clinched their first series victory in San Francisco since 2011, just two days after they won their first series in Arizona since 2012.
West coast woes? They’re 5-1 on this trip, winning in a variety of ways you’d expect from a postseason team. The Braves are beyond the surprise stage; they smell blood. They expect to win.
Foltynewicz, undoubtedly the team’s game 1 starter when the postseason rolls around, was on the attack, pinpoint with his control and overpowering a punchless Giants lineup. Bruce Bochy’s once-great organization has flopped its way into a 10-game losing skid.
Foltynewicz at one point retired 13 straight, with only three of those outs clearing the infield. He was as sharp as he’s ever been, giving the Braves an added benefit of a rest day for the bullpen.
“That was a good one,” Foltynewicz said. “I really wasn’t nervous like I had been every start for some reason. Just went out there and they were very aggressive tonight, so we had to take a look at that in the first inning. Do a lot of off-speed for first pitches. ... Had 97, 98 (mph) in my back pocket and used it for a couple high strikeouts. Curveball, changeup and slider were really first-pitch strikes.”
Leading 1-0, Ronald Acuna tripled into the deepest part of AT&T Park, almost the exact spot Ozzie Albies tripled into Monday night. Culberson stepped into the box – unexpectedly after Johan Camargo left with left-groin tightness – and sent one into the seats.
That moment, like so many before it, represents the Braves’ season. A game turns on a whim, a player fills another’s shoes more than adequately. If one is surprised, the individual hasn’t seen much of Snitker’s club.
“We’re scoreboard watching now and it’s fun to be in this position,” Culberson said. “You can just tell that everyone’s up and ready to play. We’re getting down to the last couple weeks or so and it’s an exciting time.”
The Giants doubled down on expensive veterans, relying on health and hoping to recreate magic of old. The Braves did the opposite, fleshing out their roster with speed, athleticism and under-the-radar finds.
The difference between the two has been as drastic as the drop in temperature from Phoenix to Northern California, where the Braves have enjoyed games up to 50 degrees cooler than those in the desert.
Regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s afternoon game, the Braves had a widely successful trip out West. They’ve built more than momentum entering their last homestand of the regular season. They’ve manufactured a division lead that’ll be hard to deconstruct.
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