SAN DIEGO – The Braves are undecided about their starting-rotation plans beyond this week, but it’s safe to assume Sean Newcomb isn’t going back to the minors anytime soon. Or maybe ever, if the big left-hander keeps pitching like he did again Tuesday night.
His fourth major league start was arguably the best in an imprressive string of them for Newcomb, who picked up his first win and allowed six hits and one walk with a personal-best eight strikeouts in six innings of the Braves’ 3-0 series-opening shutout of the Padres at Petco Park.
The 23-year-old is the first Atlanta-era Braves pitcher to start his career with four consecutive quality starts, surpassing the previous best of three done twice, by Zane Smith in 1984 and Mike Minor in 2010.
“He was really good again. Lot of strikes, on the attack,” said manager Brian Snitker, whose Braves have won eight of 10 games and moved back to within two games of .500 (37-39). “Breaking ball’s good. Real impressive outing…. Every outing he’s had has just been so encouraging and so positive, it’s nice to see.”
The Braves’ 15 wins in June are their most for the month since 15 in June 2014, and they still have three games to play this month — two more in San Diego and the opener of a three-game series at Oakland.
Fellow rookie Johan Camargo provided all the run support Newcomb would require with a two-run double in the fourth inning, after Matt Adams led off with a double and Tyler Flowers singled.
Newcomb lowered his ERA to 1.48 and finally got enough run support and a solid bullpen performance to close out his first win in his first road start and third decision. He has a 1.86 ERA in his past 12 starts including his final eight at Triple-A Gwinnett.
“He’s been impressive for us, man,” said Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, who singled in the eighth and scored on Nick Markakis’ sacrifice fly to push the lead to 3-0. “Just watching him pitch from center field, it looks nasty. Those pitches – that curveball, fastball – he’s been really sharp and it’s great for us.”
After averaging more than five walks per nine innings pitched in Triple-A, including three or more walks in seven of 11 starts, Newcomb has issued just eight walks in 24 1/3 innings in the majors, with three coming in the sixth and final inning of his second start June 16.
“I’m just competing every single pitch rather than maybe taking some off like I did in the past,” said Newcomb, who threw 68 strikes in 103 pitches and was replaced after Carlos Asuaje’s leadoff infield single in the seventh.
Another of the six hits off Newcomb was a bunt single by Cory Spangenberg to start the second inning. Asuaje and Spangenberg are left-handed batters who accounted for half of the hits Tuesday against Newcomb, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound lefty who has held right-handed batters to a .150 average (9-for-60).
He used his mid-90 mph fastball and big curveball with sharp command against the Padres, getting several big strikeouts when he needed them including Hunter Renfroe after Wil Myers’ two-out double in the first inning and Erick Aybar with two on to end the sixth inning.
“My command was pretty good,” Newcomb said. “I was going low-and-away to righties pretty good, getting those low-and-away corners, and then everything else was working off that.”
Hitters are 2-for-17 against Newcomb with runners in scoring position, albeit with seven walks.
“I feel like I’ve always done a pretty good job (with runners on base),” he said. “I just really buckle down and know I have to get the batter, there’s nothing I can do about the guy that’s already out there. So just make sure he’s got his feet still if he’s on second, keep him over at first and then just make a pitch, just one pitch at a time.”
Snitker said, “That’s one of the things I’ve liked is kind of a quiet competitiveness he has in those situations. It’s been refreshing to see from the get-go, it’s like he gets in trouble and kind of gets down that hill (mound) and is competing.”
The Padres went 0-for-6 with one walk against him with runners in scoring position, failing to score after a leadoff double in the sixth on a bloop to shallow right by Jose Pirela, who hustled and slid to beat the tag. Newcomb induced a groundout from Myers, struck out Refroe and walked Spangenberg before striking out Aybar to protect a 2-0 lead.
Inciarte used his speed to get himself in position to score on Markakis’ fly in the eighth. Inciarte hit the ball on the ground near second base, went to second on an overthrow to first on the play, then alertly tagged up and advanced to third on Phillips’ fly out.
The hit was the majors-leading 200th for Inciarte since the 2016 All-Star break and his 100th hit this season, making him the 35th Atlanta-era Braves player to get 100 hits before the All-Star break and first since Freddie Freeman had 108 in 2014.
The Braves have 11 more games before the break.