A resilient performance by young gun Brandon Beachy and the Braves offense on Sunday against a flu ridden Jonathan Sanchez and the San Francisco Giants garnered new hope for a successful west coast road trip. After losing the final 3 games of the 4 game set with the L.A. Dodgers on Thursday, including a gut-wrenching, extra innings walk-off loss courtesy of a Matt Kemp homer to center in the bottom of the 12th after closer Craig Kimbrel had been within a strike of sealing the win in the 9th that effectively spoiled a Braves 9th inning rally against wicked starter Clayton Kershaw, the Braves had no time to feel sorry for themselves with the weekend series in San Francisco against the World Series champs kicking off on Friday night. For the most part, the Braves just looked out of sorts during the Dodgers series. Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones struggled mightily going a combined 2-30 (and both of those hits were singles by Jones), Derek Lowe was gutsy but ineffective pitching on 3 days rest, and other than a ninth inning outburst in the second game of the series against L.A.’s bullpen, the offense as a whole continued to sputter. After not being able to salvage a split in the series wrap-up on Thursday, it was on to San Fran to tussle with the G-Men.
Tommy Hanson was marvelous in the opener Friday night, finally able to hit his spots early in the game for a welcome change, gutting out 7 strong innings while only giving up 3 hits and 1 run with 7 strikeouts as the Braves offense backed him up with 4 early runs in the top of the 3rd inning, and that’s all Hanson would need as the Braves would go on to win it 4-1 with the lethal late innings combo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel closing things out in the 8th and 9th innings. It was more of the same on Saturday as a masterful Tim Hudson scattered 9 hits and only allowed 2 runs, falling just 1 out short of his first complete game of the season, outperforming Giants ace Tim Lincecum who was surprisingly wild, issuing 6 walks in 6 1/3 innings. The Braves offense finally capitalized on all of those extra base runners in the top of the 7th, plating 3 big insurance runs and breaking open what had been a tight 2-1 Braves lead, the big blow being a Brian McCann 2-run single to center. In the series finale, it was Beachy’s turn to further prove he can handle the big moments, as he navigated his way through 6 strong innings, racking up 7 more strikeouts and only 3 hits, unfortunately one of those hits was a 2-run homer by reigning Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey. However, a 2-run double down the left field line by Chipper Jones off of Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez (who was battling flu-like symptoms before the game) in the 1st inning would bring in Martin Prado and a slump busting Jason Heyward to stake Beachy 2 early runs, so this one would be decided by the offenses and the bullpens in the later innings. With both starters settling in nicely in the middle innings, what was once a ho-hum 2-2 pitchers duel on Easter Sunday turned quickly into a riveting, back-and-forth contest with heroes galore. With two on and 2 out in the top of the 7th, Jason Heyward stepped up to the plate and after immediately falling behind in the count 1-2, he fouled off tough pitch after tough pitch until Giants lefty reliever Jeremy Affeldt finally hung an off-speed pitch over the plate, and Heyward didn’t miss it- blasting a towering, tie-breaking 3-run shot to the deepest part of the picturesque AT&T Park over the bricks in right-center field, giving the young slugger 2 homeruns in 2 at-bats so far against Affeldt and giving the Braves a 5-2 lead. But the celebration in the Braves dugout wouldn’t last long when the Giants offense rallied off Braves reliever Jairo Ascencio to take back the lead 6-5 in the bottom of the frame. The Braves offense didn’t flinch however, when a struggling but confident Dan Uggla led off the top of the 8th with a line-drive homer to left off of effective Giants setup man Sergio Romo for his first hit of the series to knot the game back up once again at 6-6. Two innings later, the Braves loaded the bases with nobody out against All-Star closer Brian “Fear the Beard” Wilson in his 2nd inning of work, and after a strikeout and a force out at the plate made it appear as if Wilson might wiggle out of the jam and do his weird, arm crossing, MMA, celebration thing on the mound, Nate McLouth would have none of it as he laced a 3-2 fastball right back where it came from up the middle, knocking out Wilson and giving the Braves 2 huge go ahead runs and the last lead they would need on the day, finally. Brian McCann’s single tacked on one more insurance run for good measure, and “Everyday” Jonny Venters closed out the heart of the Giants order in the bottom of the 10th to finish off the game, the series, and the sweep with a final score of 9-6.
So the Atlanta Braves got some form of retribution for the playoffs last year when they lost their 1st round series to these same San Francisco Giants in 4 games, every game hotly contested and ending with a 1 run result. And Jason Heyward won this round over Buster Posey, who edged him out for Rookie of the Year honors last season in the National League, as the long-time rivals (dating back to high school) seem to be destined to be compared to each other for years to come. Now it’s on to San Diego to finish off this tough 10 game stretch in Cali before returning to Atlanta to take on Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. The Padres themselves just got swept over the weekend by the Philadelphia Phillies and their relentless aresenal of Cy Young candidates. Let’s hope the Braves can kick them while their down and end the trip on a high note.
The Good: Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward’s mini-slumps in L.A. didn’t last long as they both had a huge series against the Giants. Despite his first blown save in L.A., young Craig Kimbrel bounced right back in San Fran to get 2 saves in the first 2 games of the series. Jair Jurrjens was electric again in his second start in his battle with Kershaw- even with the no decision he’s 1-0 with a sub-1 ERA in his first 2 starts. Freddie Freeman had a big series in L.A. close to his hometown and now looks like the real deal with the glove and with the bat.
The Bad: Dan Uggla has been feast or famine so far, seemingly a solo homer or a strikeout. Although, to be fair, a couple of those homers in Milwaukee and San Fran saved the game, and he’s notoriously a slow starter. Still, that .182 average in the middle of the order doesn’t look pretty. How bout some doubles Danny? And middle relief is looking a little suspect (looking at you Linebrink and Ascencio).
The Ugly: Well, other than Uggla’s .182 batting average, the starting pitchers have to stop giving up 1st inning runs. Oh, and while we were sweeping the Giants the dadgum Phillies were doing the same thing to the Padres so we didn’t make up any games in the standings. They are a major league best 15-6 and the Braves are still under .500 at 11-12. Waaaay to early to be scoreboard watching I know, but the Marlins and the Nationals are both better than you think this year so there’s really nowhere to go in the division to rack up easy wins, like say when the Falcons are playing the Panthers. My point is, gonna have to keep a steady pace this season and win a bunch of series to compete for a playoff spot, whether it’s April, the dog days of summer, or the homestretch. And Chipper’s knees are already barking a little. Gonna have to find some days off for him, and to do that other guys have to be hitting.
About the Author
Written by Marcus Young
"A lotta room in right-center, if he hits one there we can dance in the streets. The 2-1. Swung, line drive left field! One run is in! Here comes Bream! Here's the throw to the plate! He is...SAFE! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!...Braves win!" The late great Skip Caray with my favorite sports call of all time as a lumbering Sid Bream was able to beat Barry Bonds' three-hopper to the plate by an eyelash in the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to secure the Atlanta Braves' miraculous back-to-back World Series trips in 1991 and 1992. I grew up in Atlanta, I am still a die hard Braves, Falcons, and Hawks fan and am hungry for another championship to put alongside that lonely 1995 World Series trophy! I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2002 and am back living in Hot-lanta now. Go Deacs and Go Dawgs! My favorite athletes are John Smoltz, Magic Johnson, and Brett Favre. Braves are on a mission in 2011 in the 20th anniversary of that magical 1991 season!