SAN DIEGO -- While closing out a 4-3 win over the Padres in a stressful manner on Sunday afternoon, Will Smith strengthened the narrative that has been created as the Braves have spent the past couple months persevering and responding favorably to adversity.
“These past two games, my God,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It could have been real easy to [use the challenging road trip] as an excuse, quite honestly. But these guys fought their asses off for the last 10 days. It’s been rough. But it’s been unbelievable how they keep piecing it all together.”
When Smith struck out Ha-Seong Kim with the bases loaded to end Sunday’s thriller at Petco Park, the Braves concluded a 7-3 road trip with a 2 1/2-game lead in the National League East. Their magic number will be five when they begin a three-game series against the second-place Phillies on Tuesday in Atlanta.
“We’ll see what happens,” Snitker said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but you’d rather be in this position than the other. Shoot, it’s kind of fun to wake up, have a cup of coffee, then you can’t eat and all you want to do is go to the ballpark.”
When the Braves entered August with a 52-54 record, few could have confidently predicted they would enter the regular season’s final week controlling their own destiny. There were even doubts they would be in this position as recently as Sept. 18, after they began this trip with back-to-back losses to the Giants and saw their lead over the Phillies drop to one game.
Max Fried lessened the panic with his gem in San Francisco on Sept. 19. Then when the Phillies had a chance to move within a half-game of first place on Friday night, Fried notched his second shutout of the season and got the Braves back on track.
After salvaging the San Francisco series with one win, the Braves took three of four against Arizona and then swept this three-game series in San Diego. The 7-3 road trip included the Braves losing the resumption of a July 24 game against the Padres that had been suspended in Atlanta. Smith gave up the decisive home run in that loss on Friday night. But he avoided further late-inning heartache on Sunday.
“We’re a gritty group in there,” Smith said. “We just want to win. That's all we try to do every day. When we show up, we don't try to get ahead of ourselves. We don't worry about yesterday. Show up, do your job, play hard, be a good teammate and good things will happen.”
It didn’t look like good things were going to happen when Smith walked the first two batters in the ninth and then issued another free pass after getting Fernando Tatis Jr. to look at a called third strike. But consecutive strikeouts of Trent Grisham and Kim ended the threat -- and the road trip -- in jubilant fashion.
“It shows how much fight [Smith] has,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “To have the bases loaded in the ninth, it's obviously a situation we didn't want to be in. But for him to get three punchies in that situation is huge. It shows the kind of heart he has and the will to win that he has.”
Orlando Arcia, who drew a key walk in Saturday’s comeback 10-inning win, delivered the go-ahead RBI double in the sixth inning of the series finale. A Joc Pederson solo homer in the second and doubles by d’Arnaud and Austin Riley in the fourth helped Atlanta gain the lead it needed to win its latest bullpen game.
Now, two months after making the season-altering trades necessitated by the losses of Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr., the Braves are heading home looking forward to the chance to reap the benefits of the perseverance they have continued to show.
“It's kind of like one of the coolest situations to be in -- an opportunity to clinch at home in front of all our hometown fans,” d’Arnaud said. “But we've just got to take it game by game and go out there and try to win the series.”