KANSAS CITY – Even as Mike Foltynewicz struggled with his control in 2015, bouncing between bullpen and starting roles and Triple-A and the major leagues due to ineffectiveness, the Braves insisted they would continue to develop him as a starter, that he was too good to give up on in that role.
For the second time in a week, Foltynewicz made that organizational decision look wise Saturday night.
After working out of trouble against the Kansas City Royals in the first and second innings, Foltynewicz was in complete control for the rest of his career-high eight innings as the Braves blanked the defending World Series champions 5-0 to even the three-game series at one apiece.
Foltynewicz (1-1) recorded his first road win in his eighth career road start, allowing seven hits and no walks with four strikeouts.
“This guy did a lot of special stuff today,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Foltynewicz, who has give up 12 hits, two runs and no walks with 12 strikeouts in 15 innings over his past two starts. “Eight innings of shutout baseball, and we made a couple of mistakes and he covered it up. For a young player to be able to do that, it was nice to see.”
Mallex Smith had three hits including the Braves’ first triple, Ender Inciarte and Kelly Johnson had the big hits in a three-run sixth, and Foltynewicz got stronger as the game progressed on a chilly, breezy night at Kauffman Stadium. He threw 74 strikes in 103 pitches (one shy of his career high) in his third start of the season.
A.J. Pierzynski added a two-run double in the eighth for the Braves (9-26) who won for just the second time in eight games but improved to 7-5 in their past 12 road games.
Foltynewicz, 24, hasn’t allowed a walk in his past two starts, something he’d done only once in his previous 16 major league starts. He had 13 walks in 35 2/3 innings over his previous seven starts before the past two walk-free outings.
“It’s definitely one of the goals not to have as many walks this year,” he said. “Just going out there and attacking hitters, you don’t get any walks out of that. Let the defense do the work and just trying not to walk anybody.”
The defense was strong including a couple of highlight-reel catches by Smith in center field.
Dillon Gee, in his first start of the season after seven relief appearances, didn’t allow a Braves runner to reach second base through five innings. But in the sixth, the Braves put together the kind of big inning that has eluded them most nights.
Smith led off with a double and advanced on Erick Aybar’s sacrifice. Nick Markakis drew a walk, and Inciarte doubled for a 1-0 lead. The Mets elected to walk Freddie Freeman with first base open, and Johnson made them pay by hitting a two-strike, two-run opposite-field single to push the lead to 3-0 and chase Gee from the game.
Sunday against the Diamondbacks, Foltynewicz allowed five hits and two runs with eight strikeouts in his second start since being called up from Triple-A. Saturday against the Royals, he was even better.
He gave up consecutive one-out singles in the first inning, but got out of that jam with a pickoff at first base and a strikeout of Kendrys Morales to end the inning. In the second, Salvador Perez hit a one-out double and Foltynewicz retired the next two batters on a groundout and a strikeout.
“I just went out there and I attacked,” Foltynewicz said. “I knew the shadows were going to come into play, so I just went out there and attacked the first couple of innings. My slider and curveball weren’t really there; I threw a couple of good ones but they weren’t really there all night. Couple of good change-ups, other than that I just attacked and let the defense do the work. Defense played their butt off tonight. Tip your cap to them.”
The Royals advanced just one runner to second over the next five innings before Paulo Orlando doubled in the eighth.
Foltynewicz had his erratic 2015 season cut short by a frightening incident when blood clots formed in his pitching arm, leading to September surgery to remove part of a rib, a procedure known as thoracic outlet decompression.
He couldn’t throw for much of the offseason and was a few weeks behind other pitchers when spring training began, and spent April in Triple-A.
After giving up three homers in 3 2/3 innings of his season debut against the Mets at New York, Foltynewicz has been at his best in consecutive starts that have further strengthened the Braves’ belief in his top-of-the-rotation potential.
“He’s freed up and he looks good, his (improved) stamina and the endurance — it’s a different guy,” Gonzalez said.