After the Braves blew a four-run lead against the lowly Cubs on Friday, they needed someone to come through and prevent a recurrence of magic-number anxiety among the faithful.
Fitting that it would be Brian McCann to answer the call with a tie-breaking, two-out single in the ninth inning, sparking a flurry of hits that lifted the Braves to a 9-5 win at Wrigley Field and trimmed their National League East magic number to one.
“I was glad to get a pitch to handle and not miss it,” said McCann, one of two current Braves who were on the franchise’s last division championship team in 2005. The other is injured pitcher Tim Hudson.
Many Braves stuck around the visitor’s clubhouse Friday night to see if the Nationals would lose to the Marlins, which would have clinched the East for the Braves. The Nationals rolled over Miami, winning 8-0, so now the Braves get a chance to clinch on the field with a win Saturday against the Cubs.
“This is why we play baseball, this is exciting,” said Chris Johnson, who homered in the second inning and had one of three run-scoring two-out hits in the ninth, the other a two-run double by Andrelton Simmons.
Freddie Freeman also homered for the Braves, a three-run shot in the third inning that gave him 103 RBIs.
The Braves have 91 wins and should soon have the division title, but they say it’s no time to go on cruise control with nine games left in the season. Not with home-field advantage in the playoffs still up for grabs.
“We’ve still got a lot of games to win,” said closer Craig Kimbrel, who pitched a scoreless ninth in a non-save situation. “Now’s not the time to relax. Now’s the time to turn it up. So that’s what we plan on doing.”
Freeman’s homer pushed the lead to 4-0, and pitcher Paul Maholm had an RBI double in the fourth that made the score 5-1.
Braves players were surprised and thrilled by the return of Jason Heyward, who went 0-for-2 with a strikeout, a walk, and a fly out in his first game back since having his jaw broken by a fastball Aug. 21. Johnson said players didn’t think he was going to return before Monday, until they saw the lineup Friday morning.
“I think him going out there energized the club,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Heyward, who started the game with a 10-pitch strikeout, fouling off three two-strike pitches before a foul tip ended the at-bat.
After consecutive one-out walks by Heyward and Justin Upton in the third inning, Freeman’s 22nd homer was a blast to straightaway center. He has the second-most RBIs by a Brave since Andruw Jones’ 129 in 2006. Jeff Francoeur had 105 in 2007.
The Cubs clawed their way back with a Starlin Castro homer in the fifth off Maholm, a Donnie Murphy homer off Maholm in a two-run sixth, and a Dioner Navarro homer off Luis Avilan in the seventh that tied the score.
Avilan got behind 3-0 in count against Navarro and threw him nothing but fastballs, the fifth of which he drove over the left-field fence and bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue. Navarro’s game-tying homer off Avilan was the second off the lefty in 98 1/3 career innings and first this season.
A small Wrigley crowd was energized, but the Braves weren’t done. Jordan Schafer walked to start the ninth inning and advanced on a ground out. Freeman was walked intentionally before Evan Gattis flied out for the second out.
It was up to McCann, who singled to right field and pumped his fist as the veteran catcher raced from the batter’s box. Johnson followed with another single, and after a Dan Uggla walk, Simmons hit a bases-loaded double for a 9-5 lead.
Any thoughts of another four-run rally by the Cubs were doused as soon as Kimbrel jogged to the mound to begin the ninth. He gave up a leadoff hit, but induced a double play before Darwin Barney flied out to end the game.
Maholm was charged with four runs and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings and has a 4-8 record and majors-worst 5.91 ERA in 16 road starts, including 2-8 with a 7.05 in his past 14. He’s 6-2 with a 2.18 ERA in nine home starts.