CLEVELAND -- The group of reporters approached Braves closer A.J. Minter's locker in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field, and this time it didn’t have the feel of an inquisition.
“A good one this time,” Minter said with a smile.
Yes, for one day -- or, at the least, one half of one day -- the bullpen was somebody else’s problem. With an 8-7 comeback win in the nightcap of Saturday's twin bill with the Tribe, a Braves team that has fielded the questions, dealt with the relief ridicule and heard the Craig Kimbrel chants, had its largest comeback in years to turn what would have been a disastrous doubleheader into perhaps the most encouraging evening of the young season.
It was $100 million man Ronald Acuña Jr.'s clutch two-out, two-run double in the top of the ninth that made the difference in the runs column, but it was the bullpen’s surprising sturdiness in the wake of an ugly outing from Touki Toussaint that guided the way to the Braves’ largest comeback win since 2012.
“That’s the definition of Atlanta Braves baseball,” Minter said. “Chop on.”
The Braves had a lot of chopping to do early. As an extreme extension of what has been a trend of walks and wildness for the Atlanta pitching staff this season, Toussaint was all over the place in his 1 1/3 innings of work. He gave up seven runs on six hits with a walk, two strikeouts and three hit batsmen. His outing marked the first time a Braves starter hit that many batters in an outing since Tim Hudson hit three on May 20, 2011, against the Angels, and it left the Braves in a 7-0 hole.
This came after a doubleheader opener in which starter Julio Teheran couldn’t get out of the fifth. Reliever Wes Parsons allowed two damaging walks amid two run-scoring singles to extend what became a six-run outburst for the Indians that inning in the Braves’ eventual 8-4 loss. For the season, the Braves’ walk rate (12.1 percent) is the worst in baseball and their wild pitch count (10) is in the top 10, and -- had the Braves not erupted the way they did in the ninth of the nightcap -- that would have been the story.
But erupt they did. That they were in a position to do so was a credit to 26th man Shane Carle coming up for the day and relieving Toussaint with 3 2/3 scoreless innings. Chad Sobotka, Dan Winkler, Luke Jackson and Minter all followed suit with scoreless frames. The Braves’ biggest weakness was suddenly a strength.
“The bullpen did a great job once we stopped the bleeding in the second inning,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Those guys handed the ball off to each other and gave us a chance.”
And though the Braves put up just a pair of runs against Tribe starter Trevor Bauer, who went 6 1/3 innings, they took advantage of the Indians’ wild ways in the ninth.
Down 7-3 entering the inning, Dansby Swanson and Tyler Flowers drew consecutive one-out walks to load the bases against Adam Cimber. Ender Inciarte struck out, but Ozzie Albies ripped a single to right to score a pair. Josh Donaldson walked to load the bases again, and the Indians summoned Tyler Olson, who walked Freddie Freeman to bring home another run and make it 7-6.
This time, the Indians brought in Cody Anderson to face Acuna. And on a 1-0 pitch, Acuna lined a double to left to score Albies and Donaldson as the tying and go-ahead runs.
“Never give up, never surrender,” Acuna said through an interpreter. “And we’re going to continue to work hard until that 27th out is made.”
It was made in Minter’s 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, in which he struck out the side and, in a real relief, changed the storyline around this club.
“It's weird,” he said. “When we went ahead, I just felt inside that the ballgame’s going to be over with. I felt good, I felt confident. I didn’t feel it the last couple outings. Tonight, for some reason, I did.”