LOS ANGELES -- As Nick Markakis has continued to consistently enhance his strong All-Star credentials, he has certainly provided more than adequate protection for Freddie Freeman, who arguably stands as the current favorite for the National League MVP Award.
"All offseason, [the talk] was, "Who is going to hit behind me?" Freeman said. "[Markakis] came out full force right away and quieted that. Nobody talks about that now, which is great. I'm just so happy for him. He's the ultimate pro and deserves everything he gets."
Nearly three weeks from the season's midpoint, must-wins do not exist. But the 5-3 victory the Braves claimed over a red-hot Dodgers team on Saturday night could justifiably fit the much-needed category. Freeman delivered his seventh three-hit game of the season and the value of his production was enhanced by Markakis, who notched his NL-leading 27th multihit game.
"We came in here last year and they were the hottest team going," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "They play well here. It hasn't been the greatest of road trips, but that's a big win there."
With the win, the Braves halted the bleeding that had developed as they lost three of the first four games of this road trip. They remain tied with the Nationals atop the NL East standings. The fact they have had at least a share of first place at the end of all but two days dating back to May 2 can be attributed to Freeman and Markakis, who both rank among the NL's top players in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) and Fangraphs' WAR Model.
Freeman has essentially resumed the MVP campaign that was halted when he fractured his wrist and missed seven weeks last year. He leads the NL in both wRC+ (165) and fWAR (3.0). He and Markakis have also tallied a league-leading 84 hits while sitting back-to-back in the middle of Atlanta's lineup.
When the Braves made the financially motivated decision to trade Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in December, there was reason to question whether Freeman would have the protection necessary to ensure pitchers would consistently pitch to him. That potential dilemma has quickly faded as Markakis has battled Kemp for the title of the game's most rejuvenated player.
"Nick has been the most consistent guy all season," Freeman said. "It doesn't matter if we're facing lefties or righties, we feel comfortable going up back-to-back."
After spending the past three seasons fighting to regain the strength he lost when he underwent neck surgery a little more than three months before the start of 2015, Markakis has rekindled the success he had early in his career with the Orioles. The 34-year-old has hit .328 with a .390 on-base percentage and .486 slugging percentage. He ranks among the top five NL outfielders in OPS, wRC+ and fWAR.
"The big thing is [Markakis and Freeman] can't do it all, all the time," Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. "Other guys have to step up in certain situations. That's something we've done pretty well."
As Anibal Sanchez was limiting the potent Dodgers to two runs over 5 1/3 innings, Flowers was driving in three runs and adding to the frustration of Alex Wood, who allowed four runs -- two earned -- over 4 2/3 innings. Wood has lasted fewer than five innings in three of the four starts he's made against the Braves since being traded from Atlanta to Los Angeles during the 2015 season.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Big K's: When Player Page for Max Muncy drew a one-out walk with the Braves leading by two runs in the sixth, Snitker fought the temptation to allow Sanchez a third matchup against Kemp, who entered the day leading the NL with a .347 batting average. Peter Moylan entered and promptly whiffed Kemp with a slider way out of the zone. Lefty A.J. Minter then struck out the dangerous Cody Bellinger to end the inning.
"That's what we've got Peter for, in situations like that," Snitker said. "Minter had some rest, so I was hoping he could go one-plus. It ended up working out. I just didn't want to take any chances. Matt has been hot. We know how dangerous he can be. Sometimes, you've just got to go with your gut."
As Sanchez has allowed two earned runs or less in four of five starts, he continues to exceed expectations set when he signed a Minor League deal after being released by the Twins in Spring Training. He was consistently hurt by the long ball over the past three seasons with the Tigers. But he has effectively minimized damage this year.
Sanchez allowed Trea Turner to hit a two-run homer on his way to limiting the Nationals to two hits over seven innings on Sunday. This latest start proved to be similar as he allowed Muncy to homer in the first inning and then limited the Dodgers to just one more run, courtesy of a John Forsythe groundout that followed Joc Pederson's bloop double.
The Dodgers had 22 home runs through their first seven games this month. They totaled at least seven runs in six of those contests.
With Sanchez pitching effectively, the Braves may have to make a tough decision when Mike Soroka and Julio Teheran both potentially return from the disabled list within the next week.
"I'm not going to say I'm doing anything special right now that I didn't do the last few years," Sanchez said. "I think I'm doing the same. But confidence is better right now. I'm not going to say I invented a new pitch or anything. I've been the same guy, but right now everything is coming off good."
HE SAID IT
"This is what we felt we were capable of doing in Spring Training. We're putting in the work to where we need to be. We've got a couple guys coming off the DL, hopefully in the next couple days, that will get us over the hump and get us back into first place outright." -- Freeman
"It's fun to watch him pitch. The stuff is better than what I expected when we got him in Spring Training. I've been very pleasantly surprised. He's been sharp. His velocity has been good. It's quick. He has an arsenal for you." -- Snitker, on Sanchez
Sean Newcomb will attempt to enhance his All-Star credentials when the Braves conclude their road trip with Sunday afternoon's game against the Dodgers. Newcomb has posted a 1.96 ERA and limited opponents to a .195 batting average over his past 11 starts. The Dodgers will counter with Thomas Stripling, who has a 1.06 ERA over his past six starts. First pitch is set for 4:10 p.m. ET.