Chris Johnson is known around the Braves clubhouse for having a bit of a temper, and he put it to good use Wednesday night.
Johnson took a little offense to the Indians’ walking Freddie Freeman in the ninth inning – even though he knew it made perfect sense with first base open and right-hander Joe Smith on the mound – but he let it get under his collar anyway.
Johnson used a little extra emotion to rifle a 2-2 pitch past shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to drive in the winning run of a 3-2 Braves victory. Johnson still had an intense look on his face after he emerged from the celebratory scrum of the first walk-off hit of his career.
“You go up there thinking, ‘All right you want me? You got me,’” Johnson said after the game in the cooler confines of the Braves clubhouse, where logic prevailed. “It’s all part of the game, and I think no matter who was hitting back there, unless it was Miguel Cabrera or somebody like that, they’re probably going to walk Freddie and get to the righty.”
Not that Johnson is exactly a slouch. He’s second in the National League in hitting at .329 and tied for fourth in the majors behind said Cabrera, who’s leading the American League at .357. But Johnson just provided another example of the Braves morphing into whatever they’ve needed to keep this season’s roll going.
The Braves, up 2-0 in the three-game series against Cleveland, maintained a 13-game lead in the NL East and their magic number to clinch is now 18 with 30 games to play.
Johnson, who’s hit as low as eighth in the order for much of the year, was batting cleanup on Wednesday night and came up big. Jason Heyward is out with a broken jaw? Jordan Schafer is heating up in his absence in the leadoff spot. Schafer went 3-for-4 Wednesday night with a walk, and two stolen bases. He drove in the Braves’ first two runs on a bases-loaded single in the second and scored the winning run on Johnson’s single in the bottom of the ninth.
“I’ve played with him for a while and this is the best I’ve seen him swing the bat in a long time,” said Johnson, who was also teammates with Schafer the past two seasons in Houston.
With Brandon Beachy out of action after his second setback with elbow inflammation, Paul Maholm returned to the form the Braves haven’t seen since the spring.
Maholm pitched six solid innings, changing speeds with pitches ranging from a 59 mph curveball to an 88 mph fastball, and left with a 2-1 lead. He limited the Indians to one run in six innings in his second start back from a wrist injury, working around six hits and a solo home run by Mike Aviles.
“I felt way closer to what I was earlier in the year,” Maholm said. “That’s my goal for the whole month of September is to get back to there and for them to have confidence in me going forward. We’ve got a great staff and every one of us wants to be a part of the playoff thing. We’ve got to continue to win games and push each other and see how it shakes out.”
The Braves won for the first time behind Maholm since June 30, snapping a streak of four losses with him on the mound. The win went to Craig Kimbrel, who pitched a perfect ninth on eight pitches and set the Braves up for some bottom of the ninth heroics.
Luis Avilan took his first blown save of the season after allowing the tying run to score in the eighth. He was pitching for the fourth time in five days and trying to get the Braves through while Jordan Walden rests what manager Fredi Gonzalez called a leg issue. Avilan gave up back-to-back singles and loaded the bases on a one-out walk. A sacrifice fly by Aviles tied the game 2-2, but the Braves held it there after catching Cabrera taking off from first base.
Catcher Brian McCann said the batter Michael Brantley had foul-tipped a ball into his glove – and he wasn’t even sure he had it, so he wasn’t surprised that Cabrera didn’t realize it when he took off from first base. McCann, who didn’t realize Cabrera was stealing, threw back to Avilan, who got the ball to shortstop Andrelton Simmons. He tagged Cabrera out in a rundown.
“You want the ball in the hand of the right guy and Simmons is the right guy in that situation,” Gonzalez said.
Dan Uggla went 1-for-3 with a broken-bat infield hit, a walk and two strikeouts in his return from laser eye surgery. Perhaps feeling the pressure of a fan base expecting overnight success, and a Turner Field PA system playing Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly now,” Uggla struck out swinging at Justin Masterson slider well out of the strike zone in his first at-bat. But he worked back from a 1-2 count to draw a walk in his second at-bat.
“Facing Masterson tonight didn’t really help any,” said Uggla, who said he felt opening day-like jitters. “He’s tough to pick up anyways. It’s still baseball. This game is still hard. I’m still going to have bad games. I’m going to have good games. But the bottom line is I’m in a consistent place now and I’m just happy where I’m at.”
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