For an organization whose greatest successes were built around highest-level pitching, it seemed appropriate that the last game at sold-out Turner Field was a pitcher’s duel won by the Braves.
Julio Teheran matched a career-high with 12 strikeouts in seven innings, out-pitching Tigers ace Justin Verlander in a 1-0 win Sunday that was the 12th in the last 14 games of the season for a surging, upbeat Braves team that won its final five series and finished as if it wished it could play 50 more games.
The loss eliminated the Tigers from the American League wild-card race.
“I wanted to go because everybody was excited, and I’m glad I had my stuff,” said Teheran, who set the tone by striking out the side in the first inning. “I couldn’t make it any better than that. It was special to see the crowd, looking for a win. That’s the way we wanted to win and close this book.”
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Rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson made a terrific stop to start a line-out 6-4 double play to end the eighth inning, and closer Jim Johnson worked around a one-out single in the ninth and struck out Justin Upton for his 20th save before a foam tomahawk-chopping, chanting, standing-room-only crowd of 51,220.
Following an 18-46 start that had them on pace to lose 116 games, the Braves turned things around under interim manager Brian Snitker and went 50-47 over their final 97 games including 20 wins in the final 30.
“I’m feeling real good right now,” said Snitker, believed to be the favorite — he’s a consensus choice among players — for the full-time managerial post, which could be announced within a week. “I look at our team and I feel really good about our club. It’s a good eight we’re running out there. I don’t know how we could have ended it any better to kind of get momentum for next year.
“I know guys are going to be looking forward to spring training and seeing what we can do having this team together from the get-go.”
Freddie Freeman’s first-inning sacrifice fly accounted for the only run Sunday and gave him 91 RBIs to go with a .302 average, 83 extra-base hits (career-best 34 homers), .400 OBP and .968 OPS.
“A lot of people going into spring training next year are going to look at our overall record and kind of write us off,” Freeman said. “But what we did the last 2-3 months was pretty special, and ever since we got (Matt) Kemp, he came in here and changed this lineup.
“We’ve been a force to be reckoned with the last couple of months. Ultimately a lot of people are going to look at our record, but we’re a completely different team (now) and a lot of people didn’t want to play us at the end.”
Teheran (7-10) came in with just one home win thanks mainly to a lack of run support for most of the season, but on Sunday he was so sharp, so dominant early, he didn’t need much help. He gave up three hits and threw 69 strikes in 100 pitches, featuring well-located fastballs and sharp sliders.
“Hat’s off to him,” Snitker said. “That’s kind of what a No. 1 does, it’s like, get on my back and I’ll take you for a ride. That’s exactly what he did.”
The Braves scratched out a run against Verlander (16-9) after consecutive singles from Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia to start the first inning.
“It’s a lot of pitching, a lot of history in this ballpark,” Freeman said. “For it to go down in a 1-nothing game, Julio and Verlander, that’s kind of a perfect ending.”
Indeed, the game resembled many of those pitched by the Braves’ Big Three during the franchise’s great run in the 1990s. That trio of Hall of Famers, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, were part of the Braves’ All-Turner Field team honored during an emotional pregame ceremony, and all three threw out ceremonial first pitches simultaneously.
It was as if Teheran drew inspiration from that display, from the thunderous ovations accorded the Big Three, Chipper Jones and other former Braves stars before the final game in the 20-year baseball life of Turner Field.
Teheran struck out the side in the first inning, touching 95 mph with his fastball for the first time in recent memory, against a Tigers team still alive in the American League wild-card race. He struck out future Hall-of-Fame slugger Miguel Cabrera to end the inning.
“He threw the ball great all day,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. “He was pretty pinpoint, had multiple pitches working, getting ahead of guys. It was pretty awesome.”
Teheran gave up a single and walk in the second inning, but had two strikeouts that inning and went unscathed. He faced only two batters over the minimum in his final five innings, giving up two-out singles in the fifth and sixth innings.
When Teheran hit a two-out infield single in the fifth, he had as many hits as he’d allowed to that point.
Teheran had been 0-1 with a 10.61 ERA in past two home starts. But not Sunday. On this special day, Teheran pitched like an All-Star, which he was this season for the second time.
On the final day in the history of the ballpark that sits on the edge of downtown Atlanta, Teheran, dare we say, pitched like one of the greats who preceded him in a Braves uniform in the early years of the ballpark.