The great Braves prospect manifesto invigorates with every Austin Riley sky deposit. The slugger, promoted earlier this week, has already cemented himself among the team’s crowded basket of youth.
Riley swatted his second career homer (in 14 at-bats) on Saturday, and Freddie Freeman launched the walk-off solo shot in the 10th, pushing the Braves to a 4-3 win over the Brewers in SunTrust Park. It secured back-to-back series victories over formidable St. Louis and Milwaukee, a solid follow-up to their 6-4 road trip.
Freeman became just the third left-handed hitter to homer off Brewers relief extraordinaire Josh Hader since the start of last season. The Braves held a 3-2 lead in the ninth before bad bounces went against closer Luke Jackson, evening the score. In the end, Freeman and Riley are the heroes of the night.
“You want to go home, we have a day game tomorrow,” Freeman said, joking he had extra adrenaline during the winning at-bat. “Things just didn’t go our way in the ninth inning. I thought we should’ve won the game in the ninth. … You can’t win a division this early, but you can lose one. These games matter. You have to win one-run games.”
Added Riley on the walk-off: "That was super, super cool. I've never been a part of that, I don't think even in the minor leagues. That was super, super awesome."
It’s a four-game sample size, but the Braves appear to be a better team – and lengthier lineup – with Riley involved. Entering the night, he’d hit .407 (33-for-81) with 32 RBIs, seven doubles and 14 homers over his last 21 games in Triple-A and Atlanta.
He added another pair of hits Saturday, including a rocketed go-ahead stroke in the sixth inning. He took advantage of a sinker that didn’t sink, instead tailing high and inside at 87 mph from Alex Claudio. It was his eighth hit in four games, the most through a player’s first four contests in Atlanta franchise history.
“You don’t want to say (you’re surprised), but at the same time, everything you hear is the game gets a little faster, pitchers pitch you better with their command,” Riley said. “I think just really sticking to my approach and not getting away from that (is important).”
Riley will presumably regress to the mean, whatever that may be. When Ender Inciarte returns from the injured list (he’s sidelined with a lower back injury), that further complicates matters. But it’s already clear the best outcome for the Braves’ ambitions and their 22-year-old’s development requires keeping him in the bigs.
It’s a discussion for another day, but maybe the Braves give rotational days off, allowing them to plug Riley in at different spots (the corner outfield, third and first base). In short, they could move players around to make Riley an every-day presence in the lineup.
“What he’s doing the first four games, it’s hard to put into words,” Freeman said. “Hitting homers to left-center, hitting homers to right. He has power to all fields. Facing guys he hasn’t faced before he’s hitting line drives up the middle, taking what he’s given. He’s aggressive, aggressive in the zone; he’s taking pitches out of the zone, which is hard to do as a young guy. Just very, very impressed with how he’s started.”
One may argue it’s too soon to begin that thought process, but Riley’s surge borderline necessitates it. He’s on a tear even the minor-league edition of Ronald Acuna didn’t contrive. Even today, a few days into his big-league career, it’s a worthwhile conversation – certainly a nod to Riley, who’s made tremendous strides over the past 12 months since he was first promoted to Triple-A.
He’s noticeably more patient, resulting in a lower strikeout rate. His defense in left has thus far been serviceable, though simply having the ability to man multiple spots is supremely valuable in today’s game. His maturity and approach is lauded by coaches and teammates.
“He lets that ball travel,” manager Brian Snitker said. “That swing looks so good to me. Good for him. They always say when you get to the big leagues, you always know when you’ve helped your club win a game, when you win a game for your club. And he did.”
On the pitching side, the usual vitriol was fired Kevin Gausman’s way after an inning. Maybe he heard those moans and groans of Braves supporters, because he tossed five scoreless the rest of the way and departed with a 3-2 lead.
Jesus Aguilar’s two-RBI single created the Brewers’ only runs off Gausman. The right-hander, returning from a five-game suspension, wasn’t pretty but rather effective. He ended his night retiring 11 in a row.
Mike Foltynewicz, who’s had an encouraging process leading up to Sunday, will start the finale against Milwaukee. Afterwards the Braves will return to the West Coast and open a four-game series in San Francisco beginning Monday.
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