With a month left to find some entrance — back, front, hidden passage — to the playoffs, the Braves took a moment Sunday to do a little door-slamming of their own.
It was 23-year-old pitcher Alex Wood making life impassable for the Miami Marlins on Sunday, shutting them out over eight innings, putting up the most resounding performance of an embryotic career. The Braves closed out their weekend series with a 1-0 victory against Miami, proving the Wood can win despite getting less support than President Obama on talk radio.
“Wow,” manager Fredi Gonzalez summarized.
“For me that’s the best performance I’ve seen,” he elaborated. “Matches his career high in strikeouts (12), goes to 10-10 and after we get shut out yesterday he shuts out the Marlins. And we get the series win.”
Throw in an inning’s worth of Craig Kimbrel, and the Braves shut out the Marlins for the first time in their past 60 games. They had the longest active non-shutout streak in the majors until Sunday.
“(Wood) just went out there and pitched like it was no big deal, he was just competing,” catcher Evan Gattis said. “He was fired up. Outstanding.”
Gattis, the clairvoyant catcher, mentioned to Wood pregame that he thought he was going to hit a home run Sunday. The first pitch he saw from Miami starter Nathan Eovaldi was lost in the left-center seats, and his pitcher had all the offensive help he was going to get this day.
In front of the Braves lies uncertain rewards. At least behind them, the Marlins have been shuffled a little farther back (five games, after the Braves took two of three this series).
Wood was well accustomed to working without a net of run support. He ranks fifth-lowest in the National League in the dubious stat of starter’s offensive support. Hey, he can do the math: If he allowed no runs, he could not possibly be beaten again.
Wood struck out 12 in his eight innings, facing just one hitter over the minimum through the first five innings. Then things got a little dramatic.
His first and only real test was more difficult than the MCATs. In the sixth, the Marlins loaded the bases, with one out, in front of major league RBI leader Giancarlo Stanton. Wood struck out Stanton with a sinking change-up.
Then, falling behind Casey McGehee 3-1, Wood mesmerized the Marlins clean-up hitter, who watched the next two strikes — one a change, the other a curve — breeze on by.
“That’s the advantage you have when all three of your pitches are working,” Wood said.
“They’re their RBI guys, you got to make pitches,” he said. “I was at the point where I wasn’t going to let them beat me. If I walked them, I walked them and start over with the next guy. I didn’t want to let either of those guys beat me and fortunately things turned our way.”
“You have enough confidence in him he’s going to make the right pitches,” Gonzalez said. “They may hit one out of the ballpark or they may split a gap, but you feel confident he’s going to make the right pitches and he’s going to compete in those situations.
“You don’t have to worry about going to get him, you don’t have to worry about is he going to spook. That’s a nice quality to have as a young pitcher.”
Wood was working with the flimsiest of nets, the single run supplied by Gattis to lead off the second inning. It was Gattis’ 21st home run of the season, matching his total of last year, and his first career hit off Eovaldi in nine at-bats to that point.
Whereas Saturday the Braves had a three-error outing, Sunday was a day to speak kindly of their defense. Specifically, Jason Heyward, who was required to run at full throttle and slide perilously close to the left-field seats to capture a McGehee foul pop. And third baseman Chris Johnson, who pitched in a diving snag of a Donovan Solano grounder in the ninth. His throw got Solano by a millimeter.
Such are the slim tolerances that always seem to surround Wood.