It’s been nearly 2 1/2 months of scuffling for Justin Upton, and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has been questioned and criticized for continuing to bat him in the third spot in the lineup.
That made it just a little sweeter for them when Upton came through with a two-run double in the 14th inning Monday night, sending the Braves to a 7-1 win against the Marlins, who came apart in the final inning of a very long night.
“It was a long game, but we kept hitting and put up a few runs,” said Upton, who had two doubles and a sacrifice fly. “To come through in that situation, you’re not going to get it done every time, but when you can it’s nice.”
Gerald Laird added a two-run, two-out single in the inning, and two more runs scored on a Chris Johnson single that was booted in left field. That made it six runs and four hits in the 14th for the Braves, who had 24 consecutive batters retired before the inning.
“We didn’t do anything in the middle of the game, and we swung the bats there at the end,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves pushed their National League East lead back to five games over Washington. “A lot of guys had good at-bats (in the 14th). Justin, Gerald, even (Tyler) Pastornicky came in and kept that line moving.”
The tie-breaking double by Upton was the first hit for the Braves since Jason Heyward’s leadoff triple in the sixth, and drove in their first runs since Upton brought in Heyward with a sacrifice fly.
Before Monday, Upton hit .206 with 11 RBIs in his past 42 games and his .175 average with runners on base was the third-lowest in the National League. It was his first game with two extra-base hits since May 13, and first with more than two RBIs since May 17.
“(Saturday) night he had three hits,” Gonzalez said. “What did he have, two or three hits today? Drove in some runs. It’s nice to see his bat going.”
Beginning with the Upton sacrifice fly, every Braves batter was retired until Reed Johnson walked to lead off the 14th. After Andrelton Simmons was called out for batter interference on an attempted sacrifice bunt, Heyward also walked.
Upton then laced a double to left to drive in both runners. After Freddie Freeman was walked intentionally, Pastornicky had a pinch-hit single that loaded the bases. One out later, Laird singled up the middle for a 5-1 lead, and Chris Johnson singled to left.
“I don’t know how many consecutive innings it was where we didn’t have a baserunner,” Pastornicky said, “but it all came together there (in the 14th).”
When Derek Dietrich’s sixth-inning squib grounder seemingly defied the laws of inertia, bouncing three feet outside the third-base line and spinning back into fair territory for a single to load the bases, Braves starter Mike Minor could have thrown his hands in the air and cursed the baseball gods.
Instead, the Braves left-hander struck out the next batter, Jeff Mathis, to end the inning and keep the score tied, 1-1.
Nobody in either dugout, or the sparse crowd, could have guessed that oddity of a hit by Dietrich would be the last one by either team for the next 6 1/2 innings, until Giancarlo Stanton’s leadoff single in the Marlins’ 13th.
“I was still upset about the one run,” said Minor, who gave up a run on three singles in the fifth inning. “But yeah, I kept them in the game. It was a good team win. Had a lot of guys throw out there. Good team defense. Pretty much all the bench guys played, did some work out there, got some hits so we could score some runs.”
Stanton advanced on David Carpenter’s wild pitch with Marcell Ozuna batting in the 13th, and when Ozuna walked, the Braves and Carpenter were in a serious jam. But the right-hander escaped it by getting Logan Morrison to ground into a Freddie Freeman special — a 3-6-3 double play — before Adeiny Hechavarria popped out to end the inning.
“To me, Freeman is one of the top-tier defensive first basemen in the league,” Gonzalez said.
Heyward prevented potential trouble with a leaping, running catch in right field the ninth, robbing Justin Ruggiano of an extra-base hit by snagging the ball and holding on as it peaked from his glove as Heyward touched down.
Minor sailed through the first four innings, worked out of some trouble in the fifth and sixth and ended up going 6 1/3 innings and allowing six hits and one run with two walks and four strikeouts. The left-hander remained winless in his past five starts, but pitched signficantly better than he had while posting a 5.63 ERA over his previous four starts.
“He pitched well, especially with the bases loaded, to strike out Mathis in the sixth,” Gonzalez said. “That was a big inning.”
After losing their first game against the Marlins last season, the Braves reeled off 18 wins in a 21-game stretch against them before dropping the last two games of a three-game series last week in Atlanta. The Marlins were swept in a three-game series at St. Louis over the weekend, but had won 11 of their past 15 games at Marlins Park before Monday, averaging more than five runs in that span.
“Going 14 innings and using all your pitching, then losing in the end, it’s a tough loss (for them),” Laird said. “Especially in the first game of the series. So hopefully we can use this momentum, come back tomorrow and get a W.”
Minor retired the first 10 batters he faced before Ed Lucas doubled to center field in the fourth inning. Minor walked the next batter, Giancarlo Stanton, before getting out of trouble with a flyout and groundout.
He wasn’t as fortunate the next inning after Adeiny Hechavarria hit a leadoff single. Two outs later, pinch-hitter Placido Polanco and Ruggiano hit back-to-back singles and the Marlins had a 1-0 lead.
The Braves wasted a scoring opportunity in the fourth after getting two on with one out on an Upton double and Freeman walk. Hot-hitting Brian McCann popped out foul and Uggla struck out looking to end the inning.
But after the Marlins grabbed the lead in the fifth, the Braves answered with a run in the sixth against lefty reliever Dan Jennings. Heyward, who’s made recent progress against lefties, led off with a drive to the right-center gap and raced to third base, then scored on Upton’s fly.
Marlins starter Kevin Slowey, taking the rotation turn of recently traded Ricky Nolasco, worked five scoreless innings, allowing four hits and a walk.
A sparse crowd (15,745) made some noise when the Marlins loaded the bases in the sixth, then again in the seventh when reliever Jordan Walden replaced Minor with one out and proceeded to walk the next two batters, Ruggiano and Ed Lucas. That brought slugger Stanton to the plate with a chance to do real damage, but Walden struck him out, and induced an inning-ending groundout by Marcell Ozuna.
Walden, Avilan (two innings), Anthony Varvaro and closer Craig Kimbrel combined for 4-2/3 perfect innings through the 11th, and Carpenter allowed just one hit in two scoreless innings. Rookie Alex Wood pitched a scoreless 14th with one hit.
“They pick us up a lot,” Upton said of the bullpen. “Tonight they picked us up.”
Eventually, the Braves finally took advantage of the shutdown innings by their relievers.
“We just had to take one at-bat at a time and grind it out,” Laird said, wen asked how the Braves remained positive while watching 24 consecutive batters make outs. “I’m proud of the way we played today. We made some good defensive plays late, when they had first and second, nobody out. Turned a big double play. Carp kept us in the game, made some big pitches when he needed to.
“They gave our offense a chance. We knew we weren’t going to get shut out all night.”