MILWAUKEE -- More surprising than their first-place status might be the fact the Braves are nearing the All-Star break wondering where they might be without Anibal Sanchez.
"He's really saved us," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "I remember from the first time he came into his office until now, I had no idea he was going to have this kind of impact on our club. I knew he was capable, but I hadn't seen him in a while. He's way surpassed anything we thought we'd get from him."
Sanchez continued to exceed expectations as he flirted with a shutout and settled for the satisfaction of providing a stellar start that enhanced his value and helped the Braves snap a season-long four-game losing streak with Saturday afternoon's 5-1 win over the Brewers at Miller Park.
"I know the potential for this team to be in the playoffs is really high and really good," Sanchez said. "I've been in October games. I can bring a lot of teams to October."
Brimming with the confidence and comfort he's found since signing a Minor League deal with the Braves after being released by the Twins in Spring Training, Sanchez looks nothing like he had with the Tigers from 2015-17, when he posted a 5.54 ERA over 68 starts. The 34-year-old right-hander holds a 2.86 ERA through this season's first 10 starts and has solidified a young rotation that's benefited from his guidance and wisdom.
His impact on Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran has aided the first-place Braves, who with a win on Sunday can secure a winning record over a challenging 10-game road trip that began with stops at Busch Stadium and Yankee Stadium.
"He's just been a fun dude to have around," Foltynewicz said. "You don't expect to have that kind of presence around. He's not afraid to talk to you. He said he wanted to talk to me for a while, and I'm glad he did."
<p. all-star="" first="" foltynewicz="" gains="" his="" if="" on="" selection="" sunday=""> Five days after limiting a powerful Yankees lineup to three runs over six innings, Sanchez consistently created favorable counts on his way to recording a season-high eight strikeouts against the potent Brewers offense. He allowed just one hit through six innings, but exited his 82-pitch outing having allowed Milwaukee to dent the scoreboard with Brad Miller's two-out RBI single in the sixth. </p.>
Miller's single glanced off Sanchez's back and went into shallow left field, allowing Hernan Perez to score. The Braves' hurler had retired 19 straight before Perez drew a walk. His back was fine after the game, and Snitker said he would have pulled his veteran starter at that point even if he hadn't been struck.
"Every time I see Sanchez pitch, he reminds me of Freddy Garcia in 2013," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "He's just a veteran pitcher who knows how to pitch. Every time he goes out there, he gives us a chance to win. It's a great pickup for us."
Sanchez has taken advantage of the opportunity to provide the same veteran value over the course of an entire season. Instead of overpowering hitters, he outsmarts them with an array of pitches, including his cutter which proved key as he recorded six consecutive strikeouts between the second and fourth innings of his Saturday start.
"It's just so much more than I was told coming in, but he is what I remember him being," Snitker said. "He's been great."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Sanchez appeared to be in trouble when Eric Thames began the bottom of the first with a single and Jesus Aguilar got hit with a pitch to put two on with just one out. Travis Shaw followed with what would have been a single, but an alert Nick Markakis took advantage of Aguilar's hesitance on the basepath and foot speed by throwing to second to record what proved to be a tone-altering forceout. The Brewers did not produce another baserunner until Perez walked in the seventh.
"That is just a heads-up play by Nick to do that," Snitker said. "That's a potential big inning."
A save opportunity was erased by Atlanta's three-run eighth, but Snitker stuck with the way he had it lined up for Arodys Vizcaino to pitch the eighth and for A.J. Minter to handle the ninth. Upon Vizcaino returning from the disabled list earlier this week, Snitker said the two will share the closer's role.
Vizcaino appeared healthy as his four-seam fastball touched 98.9 mph and averaged 97.9 mph. He surrendered one hit in a scoreless eighth that began with him facing the eighth and ninth spots in the Milwaukee order. Minter pitched around Shaw's one-out infield single in the ninth.
"The first two guys were a better matchup for Viz in that game," Snitker said. "I'm just trying to get him back in it. I really like the way he's throwing, and he's feeling good. But that's the second time he's been out there since [coming off the DL]. We're liable to close with him tomorrow."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Braves' two-run first-inning was sparked by the one-out single Ozzie Albies was awarded when a replay review reversed first-base umpire Quinn Wolcott's ruling that Brewers starting pitcher Aaron Wilkerson beat the speedy Albies to the bag. Freeman followed the successful challenge with a single, then Markakis drew a walk ahead of Johan Camargo's two-run single.
"That play Albies beats out, it's a different inning if [Wilkerson] starts with two out and nobody on," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said.
Sean Newcomb (8-3, 3.10 ERA) will attempt to get back on track when the Braves conclude a 10-game road trip with Sunday's 2:10 p.m. ET game against the Brewers. Newcomb's All-Star credentials were damaged when he allowed the Yankees five earned runs over a career-short 2 2/3 innings on Tuesday. Milwaukee will counter with Junior Guerra (5-5, 2.87), who has a 2.75 ERA over his past 10 starts.