Local kid David Hale had a most auspicious major league debut for the Braves on Friday night, collecting a record-breaking nine strikeouts in five scoreless innings against the Padres.
The right-hander from Marietta left with a 3-0 lead, but a figurative wet blanket was tossed over Hale’s rousing performance when the Padres scored four runs against the team’s usually reliable bullpen to pull out a 4-3, series-opening win at Turner Field.
Hale limited the Padres to four hits and one walk, and gave a contingent of more than 100 friends and family members plenty to cheer about while breaking a franchise record for strikeouts by a pitcher in his big-league debut.
“I think it went pretty well,” the 25-year-old Princeton graduate said. “Got all my nerves out. Didn’t throw up or trip running out there, so … got to be happy with that.”
Justin Upton and Brian McCann hit home runs in a three-run fourth inning to break open a scoreless game, and the Braves figured to cruise from to their 21st win in 26 home games and reduce their National League East magic number to five.
But the Padres had other plans, roaring back to defeat the Braves for the 11th time in their past 17 meetings, including all four this season. The Braves’ magic number to clinch the division title remained at six after the second-place Nationals defeated the Phillies.
“David was outstanding,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “You couldn’t have asked for anything more. Couldn’t have been a better script.”
Well, except for the ending.
Reliever Luis Ayala, after pitching a perfect sixth inning, gave up three consecutive singles to start the seventh. The Padres got a run on pinch-hitter Jesus Guzman’s infield hit against reliever Luis Avilan, then cut the lead to 3-2 on Chris Denorfia’s sacrifice fly against reliever David Carpenter.
The Padres took the lead with two runs in the eighth. Chase Headley hit a tying homer on Jordan Walden’s first pitch of the inning, and Logan Forsythe greeted lefty Scott Downs with a two-out single for a 4-3 lead. It was Downs’ first appearance since breaking the ring finger of his non-throwing hand Saturday when struck by a line drive at Philadelphia.
“It’s tough,” Gonzalez said. “Our bullpen is a really good bullpen. Sometimes it’s tough to cover that many outs before you get the ball to (closer Craig) Kimbrel. That didn’t happen.”
The Braves had hits in only two innings — five hits in all — and have batted .197 with 33 runs over the past 10 games (4-6).
“Obviously I wish we could have gotten the win there and shrunk that magic number,” Hale said. “But I’m still glad to have a good first one under my belt.”
Upton’s 25th homer came on starter Ian Kennedy’s first pitch in the fourth, and McCann’s two-run homer provided a 3-0 lead and gave McCann his sixth consecutive 20-homer season and seventh in eight full seasons in the majors.
“It’s pretty cool obviously to hit 25 homers,” Upton said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Braves had a prime opportunity to build on the lead in the sixth, after singles by Upton and Freddie Freeman to start the inning. Evan Gattis struck out and McCann hit a line drive that Kennedy snared to start a double play.
Hale, 25, had six strikeouts in just the first three innings, matching his season-high at Triple-A Gwinnett. He struck out two more in the fourth and one in the fifth to break a franchise record of eight strikeouts by Bob Dresser in his major league debut in 1902 and matched in 2009 by Kenshin Kawakami, a 34-year-old Japanese League veteran at the time.
“What a debut that was,” McCann said. “I tip my hat to him. He came out and battled, pitched about as well as you could pitch.”
Asked how he could explain striking out nine in his big-league debut, after not striking out more than six all season in Triple-A, Hale said, “I can’t. It was a dream come true, it really was. I just had so much adrenaline and emotion, I’m just happy it turned out that way.”
Gonzalez said, “His stuff was electric. He had a two-seamer going, a sinker that the bottom was just dropping out of. I’m glad we got him a start here at home in front of his people here. Good for him.”
Hale was called to the majors Sept. 5, after going 6-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 22 games (20 starts) for Gwinnett. He had hoped merely to pitch an inning or two before the season ended, but Hale was thrust into a starting assignment after Paul Maholm came down with a sore elbow.
McCann spent spring training doing rehab for his surgically repaired shoulder, so he didn’t know Hale from camp.
“I didn’t even get a chance to catch him in the spring,” McCann said. “But I went down there early and caught the whole bullpen, talked to him before the game, talked to him about executing and dictating the count, and he did that to a T tonight. He pounded the zone early, got ahead, then made them hit his pitch. His sinker darts all over the place.”
Hale hadn’t pitched since Sept. 2, but showed neither rust nor nervousness as he worked out of a couple of hot spots and mowed down Padres hitters. Pitching at the ballpark where he and buddies from The Walker School used to come as Braves fans, Hale comported himself splendidly while pitching in front of a large hometown crowd.”
Hale threw 56 strikes in 87 pitches. He struck out three in the first inning, including Headley and Kyle Blanks with runners on the corners after allowing a pair of one-out singles.
He got another big strikeout in the third when he fanned Jeff Gyorko after Chris Denorfia’s two-out double inside the third-base line. Hale also worked around a leadoff walk in the fourth by retiring the next three batters on a strikeout (Blanks), a ground out, and another strikeout (Ronny Cedeno).
“You can’t ask for anything more than that, really,” Gonzalez said. “Now you can’t wait to run him back out there, whether it’s, I hope, later on this year sometime. Or maybe even next year. But the young man was terrific.”
As for taking him out after five innings, Gonzalez said, “He was right up there at 90 pitches, that’s where we targeted for him to throw. Believe me, tomorrow he’s going to wake up probably thinking he threw 150, being his first time pitching in the major leagues.”