After overcoming a dominant outing by Phillies ace Cliff Lee to win Friday, the Braves faced a significantly less formidable task Saturday against Ethan Martin and a cast of relievers, in a game far more important to playoff-bound Atlanta than to Philadelphia.
If you didn’t know that, you might have sworn otherwise judging from the performances — that is, until Justin Upton made things interesting with a three-run homer in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss at Turner Field in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
The Braves were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and down to their last out before Upton’s two-out homer off closer Jonathan Papelbon erased most of a 5-1 deficit and brought a crowd of 38,171 to its feet.
Freddie Freeman followed with a single and Evan Gattis walked before Chris Johnson grounded out on a terrific play by shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who dove to make the stop at the back edge of the infield, then got up and fired a one-hop throw to first base that beat Johnson, who slid head-first.
“He drilled it, it was on the ground, and J-Roll made a good play,” said Upton, who had four hits for the third time this season. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”
Johnson threw his helmet afterward and it apparently hit first-base coach Terry Pendleton, who grabbed Johnson by the front of his jersey and shoved him. Johnson declined to comment, and a Braves official characterized the incident as a heat-of-battle situation and said it was taken care of.
“(Johnson) had a hell of an at-bat,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He’s not the fleetest guy in the world. Rollins not only made a great play stopping that ball from going in the outfield, but to get up and throw Chris out at first base.”
A sloppy seventh inning and earlier missed opportunities proved costly for the Braves, and the loss meant they no longer control their fate in the race for the National League’s best record and top playoff seed.
Coupled with the Cardinals’ win against the Cubs, the loss dropped the Braves (95-66) a game behind St. Louis (96-55) for the NL’s best record.
Because the Braves hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals by virtue of head-to-head record, if the Braves win Sunday’s season finale and the Cardinals lose, the Braves would get the top seed. But any outcome than that Sunday will force the Braves to face the Dodgers and aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the division series.
“The way we played this last inning, we need to come out and (continue that),” said Gonzalez, whose team tied its season-high with three errors. “That’s still a big carrot for us, for us to win and St. Louis to lose, to get the No. 1 seed.”
The NL’s top seed will play the winner of the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Wild Card game in one division series, while the No. 2 seed will face the West Champion Dodgers in the other. Both best-of-five series start Thursday, and the Braves have home-field advantage – Games 1, 2 and 5, if necessary — regardless of opponent.
If the No. 1 seed advances to the league championship series, it has home-field advantage in that best-of-seven series.
“We still have business,” Upton said. “We still have to win a ballgame, come back here tomorrow and see what happens. It’s out of our control. We had control of it tonight and didn’t do it, so tomorrow it’s in their hands, but we still have to do what we have to do.”
Braves starter Mike Minor (13-9) pitched six innings and gave up five hits, two runs and three walks with six strikeouts. Both runs came in the first inning, continuing a trend: The left-hander has allowed a .270 average and six home runs in the first inning this season, and a .222 average and nine homers in all other innings.
The Phillies hurt him without a long ball. Cesar Hernandez reached on a bunt single on the first pitch of the game and Rollins hit the next pitch for a double down the third-base line. Minor retired the next two batters before giving up a bases-loading walk to Domonic Brown and two-run single up the middle by Cameron Rupp.
“I’ve been struggling in the first inning, but tonight I felt like it was kind of bad luck,” Minor said. “Bunt single on first pitch, second pitch was a double down the line. Second and third, nobody out. I ended up getting a strikeout and a walk, then I made a good pitch and (Rupp) got a jam shot up the middle.”
The Braves got a run in the bottom of the first on Freeman’s sacrifice fly, then wasted repeated scoring chances as the Phillies nursed a 2-1 lead until the seventh inning, when things got ugly for the Braves.
Reliever Jordan Walden, pitching for the first time since Sept. 17 and the fourth time in five weeks, gave up two hits and was charged with two runs (one earned), a wild pitch and a throwing error in the seventh. He gave up a pair of soft hits to the first batters he faced, and left fielder Gattis’ error on the second hit let in a run for a 3-1 lead.
Walden struck out the next two before he was replaced by left-hander Scott Downs, whose September struggles continued when he gave up an RBI single through the right side to the first batter he faced, Brown.
“For the first time out in a while, I thought it was OK,” Gonzalez said of Walden’s outing. “We just kind of gave them extra outs and it got us behind the eight-ball a little bit. But then you feel like we had some situations, with Downsy against Brown and then Woody with Utley (in the eighth). They didn’t hit the ball hard but found a hole and got runs out of it.”
The Phillies got their last run in the eighth on four singles, three against Anthony Varvaro and Chase Utley’s RBI infield hit off Wood.
The Braves went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position in the first five innings. After Freeman’s sacrifice fly in the first, they still had a runner at second and got a pop-up from Gattis and strikeout by Johnson.
They had two on with one out in the third with Freeman up, carrying a .454 average with runners in scoring position that was the majors’ second-best before Saturday. But he struck out, and Gattis flied out.
Gerald Laird doubled with one out in the fourth and advanced on Andrelton Simmons fly out before Elliot Johnson struck out. The Braves had another scoring chance in the fourth after Upton’s two-out double, his third hit. But again Freeman struck out with a potential tying run in scoring position.
“We put ourselves in situations all game, runners in scoring position,” Upton said. “We can’t expect Freddie to drive in every run. That’s too much pressure to put on him. We put ourselves in position to score runs. We didn’t. They put up five runs, and our late-inning comeback wasn’t enough.”
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