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Braves near NL East title thanks to bats, 'pen

@mlbbowman
September 22, 2020

ATLANTA -- Veteran closer Mark Melancon is still trying to get used to going through a playoff race without the energy created by fans. But the Braves right-hander felt a little extra energy as he was part of a ninth-inning play that highlighted the late drama in a key 5-4

ATLANTA -- Veteran closer Mark Melancon is still trying to get used to going through a playoff race without the energy created by fans. But the Braves right-hander felt a little extra energy as he was part of a ninth-inning play that highlighted the late drama in a key 5-4 win over the Marlins on Monday night at Truist Park.

“That was fun,” Melancon said after recording a save that gave the Braves a four-game lead over the second-place Marlins and a five-game lead over the third-place Phillies with six contests left in the National League East race.

Box score

The Braves' magic number to clinch a third straight division title is mathematically three. But because they would own the tiebreaker against the Marlins, they can end this division race with a win and a Phillies loss on Tuesday.

Had the late-inning drama drawn a different conclusion, there would have been a lot more pressure placed on the Braves, who saw their already flimsy starting rotation weakened when Cole Hamels was lost for the season with left shoulder fatigue on Monday.

The fact Atlanta is possibly less than 24 hours from another division crown further highlights this zany series opener, which began with the two teams combining for seven runs in the first. Austin Riley capped a four-run first with a two-run double and then played a role in both of the key defensive plays made within the final two innings.

“He moves so well laterally and has good coordination [and] footwork for the size of man he is," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Riley.

While Snitker was complimenting his young third baseman’s defense, Melancon was playfully pointing out how Riley had unknowingly influenced the double play recorded when speedy Monte Harrison attempted to go from first to third on a Matt Joyce chopper that the Braves closer fielded behind the mound.

“I didn’t realize Riley didn’t give me any credit and was right on my heels when that ball went up in the air,” Melancon said. “If he’d have just stayed at his position, we wouldn’t have had that issue. I guess he had no confidence in me.”

Riley’s decision to vacate third base prompted Harrison to attempt to take two bases on the play.

"In my book, that's a smart baseball play," Harrison said. "With my speed and the way I play the game and the way my instincts play up, we take that play nine times out of 10. The one time happens to be today. It is what it is. I take full responsibility for making that out.

"But any other day, I'm still making that exact same play, because I don't think they can do that consistently to get me out. It takes a perfect throw from Freddie [Freeman] and it takes a great play from Dansby [Swanson] to make that catch and make that tag on a bang-bang play.”

As Harrison was making this dash at a speed of 31.2 ft./sec. (30-plus is elite) per Statcast, Swanson alertly went toward the third-base bag to snare the throw Freeman made after receiving Melancon’s throw to retire Joyce.

“I saw the ball coming right back at me really quickly,” Melancon said. “Freddie turned and launched it right over my head.”

Once Swanson caught Freeman’s strong throw in stride, he made the diving play that prevented Harrison from getting to third as the potential tying run with just one out.

“It’s just an athletic play all around,” Melancon said.

One inning earlier, the Marlins had moved to within one run and loaded the bases before Shane Greene was lifted in favor of Will Smith, who was scheduled to have the night off. Smith ended that threat when Starling Marte’s 110.6 mph liner found Riley’s glove to end the inning.

That was the hardest-hit ball of the night, when the Braves once again managed to win despite their starter not getting into the fourth. Huascar Ynoa settled down after allowing three in the first. But with the postseason approaching, it’s worth noting yet again that the Braves have had a starter go three innings or fewer in 14 of 54 games.

Their potent offense has played a part in the fact the Braves have managed to go 5-9 in these games. But much of the credit should go to a deep bullpen that has produced a 3.52 ERA in these contests when an Atlanta starter has recorded nine innings or fewer.

It was assumed the Braves bullpen would be good. But is this a group that has actually exceeded expectations?

“We’re not finished yet,” Melancon said. “I don’t want to say anything. We still need to clinch and finish this year strong.”

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.