It’s been an auspicious start to his major league career for shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who collected another first — a home run — Saturday and raised the buzz factor still higher among Braves fans and teammates thrilled by all they’ve seen from the rookie and a resurgent team.
Simmons hit his first big-league homer, Dan Uggla hit his 201st, and Tommy Hanson pitched a career-high eight innings in an 5-2 win against Toronto at Turner Field, extending the Braves’ winning streak to a season-high six games.
Michael Bourn added his third consecutive three-hit game, and the Braves made several spectacular defensive plays while collecting their eighth win in nine games since ending an eight-game losing streak.
“[The defense] was flat-out unbelievable,” said Hanson (7-4), who allowed five hits, two runs and one walk with four strikeouts. “It was a lot of fun to watch. I threw well, there were a ton of good plays, and it was a total team effort. That’s got to be one of my favorite games I’ve ever played in.”
It moved to the top of Simmons’ list. The 22-year-old Curacao native homered on the first pitch of the seventh inning to push the lead to 4-2, the Braves’ first run since Uggla’s three-run homer in the third.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Simmons, who couldn’t remember his trip around the bases, other than shaking hands with first-base coach Terry Pendleton and third-base coach Brian Snitker. “I would never think I was going to hit a home run here. It came when I was least expecting it. I hit that ball, I felt like I got it, and when I saw it fly out, I was like ‘really?’
“I hit my first home run at Turner Field, the stadium I always watched on TV.”
Braves pitchers have a majors-leading 1.71 ERA in June — more than three runs below their 4.48 in May. They’ve put together a winning streak without third baseman Chipper Jones, who’s expected back from the disabled list Sunday or Monday.
“That’s because of the pitching, the pitching and defense,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves remained a game behind National League East-leader Washington. “That’s the only thing you can credit. I think we rattled off some pretty good games pitching-wise, and also defensively we’ve been stellar.”
Hanson is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA in two June starts, going seven innings Sunday at Washington in the Braves’ lone win in five games against the Nationals.
He topped that Saturday by going eight when the Braves needed it most, after they used relievers for nine innings in Thursday and Friday wins and went into Saturday determined to rest bullpen workhorses Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
They needed only closer Craig Kimbrel, who pitched a perfect ninth inning for his league-leading 18th save and 12th consecutive scoreless appearance (three hits allowed in 12 innings).
Hanson had a two-hit shutout until the sixth inning, when he gave up three consecutive hits, including a two-run homer by Jose Bautista. He retired the last seven batters he faced with help from right fielder Jason Heyward, who made a terrific diving catch in the gap.
Third baseman Martin Prado made two strong plays, and Uggla made a diving stop and threw to first for the final out.
“It was funny,” Uggla said, “after Simmons hit that home run he came up and said, ‘Man, I’m trying to be like you.’ And I made that diving play and said, ‘Dude, I’m trying to be like you, homey.’”
Since being brought from Double-A Mississippi and bypassing Triple-A, Simmons has started all seven games and hit .280 with three extra-base hits, four RBIs, a .357 on-base percentage and .520 slugging percentage. Not bad for a kid known not for hitting but sensational defense and a cannon-like throwing arm.
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