The Astros were in town on the Fourth of July, the Braves were surging after a weekend sweep at Oakland, and there was added buzz from the announcement earlier Tuesday that Freddie Freeman was coming off disabled list earlier than expected and would be in the lineup at third base.
The largest crowd to date at SunTrust Park turned out to see what the Braves could do with hotshot rookie Sean Newcomb on the mound and the lineup bolstered with the addition of Freeman.
And the Braves, after winning 11 of 15 games to improve to 40-41 before Tuesday, had a chance to get to .500 for the first time (past the opening weeks of a season) since they were 42-42 on July 7, 2015. This was going to be a big night.
But then the game happened. And the Astros did what they do, pounding Newcomb for five extra-base hits and seven runs in 3 1/3 innings and rolling to a 16-4 rout in the opener of a two-game intlerleague series before a sellout crowd of 41,456.
“They’re athletic (and) they just really hit, we knew that the last time we played them,” said manager Brian Snitker, whose Braves have been outscored 28-9 in three losses to the Astros. “You look at the boxscores, watch everything going on, that’s the reason they’re the best team in baseball right now.”
The Astros have won 19 of 22 road games to improve their majors-best road record to 30-9 and their overall mark to 57-27, best in the majors and the best start in franchise history. They are 30 games over .500 for the first time since they were 90-60 on Sept. 24, 2001.
Sixteen runs (all earned) matched the season high allowed by Braves pitchers in a 16-5 home loss to Mets on May 3, and the Astros’ 19 hits were one shy of the season-high 20 the Braves allowed twice, in that loss to Mets and in a 14-4 loss to Washington on April 19 also at SunTrust Park.
Freeman singled in the first inning in his first plate appearance since fracturing is left wrist May 17, but Braves fans didn’t have much else to get excited about until the Braves got three runs in the seventh inning after trailing 12-0.
It was an odd vibe because nearly everyone stayed for the entire game, sitting quietly and waiting for postgame fireworks. Josh Reddick started the fireworks, so to speak, with a towering ninth-inning grand slam off reliever Jason Motte.
Newcomb, who allowed a total of 18 hits and five runs (four earned) in 24 1/3 innings over his first four starts, gave up 10 hits and seven runs and recorded just 10 outs against the Astros.
“That’s a tough lineup, especially they’ve got good right-handed hitters,” Freeman said. “They came out swinging tonight. Those are things (Newcomb) is going to learn from. He had four good, quality starts going into this. As much as you want to be perfect every time out you are not going to.”
Snitker said, “It’s something he’ll learn from and take away and be all the better for it.”
It was the first time Newcomb went fewer than six innings in the majors. The big rookie was asked if it was intimidating facing the best offense in baseball.
“Going into it, you know they have a really good lineup and everything, but it’s not something you think about,” said Newcomb, whose ERA jumped from 1.48 to 3.58. “It’s still hitters, you’ve got to attack them. I just didn’t attack as well as I should have, maybe just missed a little bit on a handful of pitches and whatnot, but it just didn’t go my way.”
The Braves had won 16 of their past 25, but they only faced two teams with winning records during that stretch, the Nationals and Brewers, and neither is as deep and formidable as this Houston team.
Each of the past three times the Braves came home after winning a road series, they laid an egg in the first game back.
After winning two of three at Cincinnati, the Braves lost 11-4 to the Phillies in a June 5 homestand opener with Bartolo Colon pitching. After winning two of three at Washington June 12-14, Atlanta had a day off before losing 5-0 to the Marlins in a homestand opener with Newcomb pitching (six innings, three runs).
This time the Braves were coming off a three-game sweep at Oakland and a day off Monday.
The Astros are the last opponent any team can afford to give extra outs, since they began Tuesday leading the majors in batting average (.283), on-base percentage (.349), slugging percentage (.487), doubles (172) and home runs (133).
The extra out came in the third inning, after George Springer led off with a homer that pushed the lead to 2-0. Speedy Jose Altuve was up next and hit a ground ball that second baseman Brandon Phillips fielded well back on the dirt instead of charging, and by the time he fielded it the throw was too late to get Altuve.
So when Reddick followed with a ground-out it was only the first out, and Newcomb gave up a single and hit Marwin Gonzalez to load the bases. Ex-Brave Brian McCann lined out for the second out, but Yuli Gurriel followed with a three-run double that broke the game open, giving the Astros a 5-0 lead.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” Snitker said. “I mean, you can’t give them extra outs, that’s for sure. Against these guys, you get 27 outs and if they get one extra they can hurt you.”
Astros starter Brad Peacock (6-1) allowed just three runs and eight hits in 15 1/3 innings over his past three starts before Tuesday, when he gave up seven hits and three runs in six innings with two walks and seven strikeouts.
Newcomb had a 1.86 ERA in his past 12 starts before Tuesday including eight Triple-A starts, and he gave up half as many runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Astros as he allowed in 67 2/3 innings over those previous dozen starts.
Springer’s home run was his 25th, making him the first Astros player with more than 24 before the All-Star break since Lance Berkman had 29 in 2002. And Springer is Houston’s leadoff hitter. The Yankees’ Aaron Judge (29) was the only major leaguer with more than 24 homers before Tuesday.