‘Utility pitcher’ De La Cruz helps Braves beat Phils

For nine seasons in the minor leagues right-hander Joel De La Cruz was a relief pitcher who occasionally started. He got his first the call to the big leagues as a starter for the Braves on June 29 before eventually going to their bullpen.

It was back to starting again on Sunday for De La Cruz, who should be used to the back-and-forth by now.

“I’m a utility pitcher,” De La Cruz said in Spanish, smiling big after he helped the Braves beat the Phillies 2-1 at Turner Field.

Jeff Francoeur’s go-ahead, two-run homer in the seventh inning put the Braves ahead for good. Before that De La Cruz kept the Braves in the game.

In his third career start De La Cruz held the Phillies scoreless with three hits over 4 1/3 innings. De La Cruz last started on July 4 at Philadelphia, when he allowed seven runs (four earned) runs over six innings.

He’s made seven relief appearances since then, including a four-pitch outing against the Phillies during Thursday’s series-opener. De La Cruz took the rotation spot vacated when the Braves (37-68) traded Lucas Harrell to the Rangers on Wednesday.

“I try to stay consistent with my approach and remain the same whether it’s out of the bullpen or starting,” De La Cruz said through an interpreter. “I will say that sometimes coming out of the ‘pen,’ you are a little more aggressive because you are coming out and trying to get outs right there. As a starter, you are trying to craft the game and play through it and so maybe a little less aggressive.”

Francoeur hit his home run against reliever Andrew Bailey after the Braves could do little against Phillies starter Jerad Eickhoff. He held the Braves to two hits with no walks over five innings but departed following a 24-minute rain delay in the middle of the sixth.

De La Cruz kept pace with Eickhoff. He stranded Odubel Herrera in the first inning after a one-out single. Aaron Altherr walked to lead of the first inning and went to second base on De La Cruz’s throwing error on a pick-off attempt, but second baseman Jace Peterson threw out Altherr when he tried to take third on the play.

De La Cruz finally slowed in the fifth inning. He issued a one-out walk to Asche and Freddy Galvis followed with a single on De La Cruz’s 62nd pitch. That prompted interim manager Brian Snitker to call on reliever Ian Krol, who got Eickhoff to ground out into a double play on the first pitch.

De La Cruz has allowed two runs over his past 10 1/3 innings for a 1.74 ERA. The Braves needed effective innings from De La Cruz after they used six relief pitchers during Saturday’s loss to the Phillies.

“He was out on the attack,” Snitker said. “His stuff was live, I thought. Really good sinker. Very aggressive. He made the most of the opportunity and came up big for us.”

Outfielder Jimmy Paredes got the Phillies within 2-1 with a home run against Chris Withrow to lead off eighth inning. Withrow retired the next three batters and closer Jim Johnson recorded his fourth consecutive save.

The Braves split the four-game series against the Phillies (48-59) following their two-game sweep of the Twins in Minnesota.

“We’re not playing bad ball,” Peterson said. “It seems like we are in every game and it’s always one inning we will have a miscue and one thing leads to another. But for the most part we are playing pretty good baseball and looking forward to keeping it going.”

Braves right fielder Nick Markakis singled against Bailey with one out in the seventh. Francoeur fell behind 0-2 before sending Bailey’s fastball to the opposite field for his seventh home run of the season and first at home.

Eickhoff, who was 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA in four previous starts against the Braves, continued to confound them. Peterson and Ender Inciarte were the only Braves to reach base over five innings against Eickhoff, who presumably would have continued if not for the delay because he’d thrown just 51 pitches.

Inciarte went 2-for-3 and extended his season-long hitting streak to 12 games.