ATLANTA -- Given the tremendous impact Austin Riley has made during the first month of his big league career, it was fitting that the Braves moved into first place in the National League East for the first time this year on a night when their young slugger displayed more clutch power and surprising speed.
Riley drilled a game-tying home run in the ninth and then dove headfirst across home plate after racing from first base on an Ozzie Albies walk-off double that gave the Braves an 8-7, 11-inning win over the Pirates on Wednesday night at SunTrust Park.
“I love that you ran through the pain and still dove, too,” Albies playfully told Riley, who was hit on the left wrist by a pitch to begin the decisive inning that gave the Braves their sixth straight win and a one-game lead over the second-place Phillies.
Riley reacted to the suddenly-hot second baseman’s comment with the same smile that has been seen since he made his Major League debut on May 15. The 21-year-old prospect (the Braves' No. 4 per MLB Pipeline) has hit 10 home runs and constructed a .959 OPS through his first 26 games.
Riley's ninth-inning home run made him the fastest Braves player to reach 10 career homers, besting the record previously held by Wally Berger (29 games in 1930).
“They’re all big,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They’ve all given us a lead, tied the game or put us ahead. He comes up in big spots.”
Before providing more attention to Riley’s homer barrage, it’s important to note he covered his game-ending dash from first to home in 10.94 seconds, per Statcast. His 27.0 ft./sec. sprint speed was right at MLB average. In other words, his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame provides more than just impressive power.
“He’s not slow by any means,” Braves starter Mike Soroka said. “He runs pretty good. He’s a good athlete. I knew if he got a good jump, he’d be there. I think we were on the field before he actually came [across the plate].”
Soroka endured a rare rough outing, allowing career highs in hits (10) and earned runs (5) over five innings, but he still ranks second in the NL with a 1.92 ERA. As the 21-year-old rookie allowed more than one earned run for only the fourth time in 16 career starts, he let the Pirates chip away at the early deficit Bucs prospect Mitch Keller faced after allowing six runs over three innings.
Riley fueled the Braves’ three-run first with his first career triple, then highlighted his fourth three-hit game -- in which he finished a double shy of the cycle -- when he began the ninth by blasting Kyle Crick’s 3-1 fastball over the center-field wall.
“I made some pretty decent pitches early,” Crick said. “The first pitch was down, but it’s one of those deals where you’ve got to get ahead of those kinds of guys.”
Riley has accounted for the two home runs that Crick has allowed over a span of 147 at-bats against right-handed hitters dating back to April 28, 2018. Riley's go-ahead home run during a June 6 win in Pittsburgh came against the right-handed reliever’s slider.
“In Pittsburgh, he threw me a bunch of sliders,” Riley said. “Then, when I faced him earlier this week, it was all fastballs. He went back to the same thing. He went all fastballs, so I just geared up for it and took my chances.”
Though Riley has said he hasn’t always known exactly who he has faced in a game, his cerebral approach has shown he has a better memory than he thinks. He’s also shown the ability to remain calm under pressure.
Four of Riley’s 10 home runs have either tied a game or given the Braves a lead after the sixth inning. Though Soroka said he saw Riley's clutch gene as they were coming up together in the Minors, the slugger admits he’s been somewhat surprised by the success he’s had in big situations.
“I felt like when I got up in those situations in the Minors, the nerves would get me,” Riley said. “That’s why I think this clubhouse helps. Everybody thrives off that positive energy.”
Though rain delays the past two nights have led to the Braves leaving the ballpark after 1 a.m. ET, and with Thursday’s first pitch coming at noon, the home clubhouse was still filled with some of that energy Riley created with his long blast and mad dash.
“I’m not a speedster,” Riley said. “I turned it on a little bit. That was fun.”