May surprises: Elder, Ozuna keep surging in Braves' walk-off win
ATLANTA -- Bryce Elder is an All-Star candidate and Marcell Ozuna is a Player of the Month candidate. This would certainly fall into the category of sentences you didn’t expect to read a month ago.
But with May nearing its end, it looks like both players might be experiencing more than just fleeting success. Elder and Ozuna made significant contributions to help the Braves avoid a three-game sweep with an exciting 4-3 walk-off win over the Dodgers on Wednesday night at Truist Park.
“It was really good, especially with the way the first two [games of the series] went and heading into our series against the Phillies,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “You want to start to build momentum, and this is a good start to do that.”
The Braves certainly didn’t want to enter a four-game series against the Phillies having just been swept. There’s certainly no shame in losing to the Dodgers, who are the only National League team with a better record than Atlanta. But the manner with which this sweep would have been realized would have been frustrating.
A four-run first-inning was wasted by Charlie Morton and some shoddy bullpen work on Monday. The Braves faced a second straight pitching prospect on Tuesday and managed just one run. The bullpen proved problematic again as Nick Anderson allowed the Dodgers to tie the game with two eighth-inning runs on Wednesday.
But the Braves closed this potential NL Championship Series preview with an impressive battle. Riley continued to heat up as he tallied his second double of the night to begin the bottom of the ninth. Travis d'Arnaud followed with what Braves manager Brian Snitker called “about as a pro at-bat as you’re going to see.” His grounder to the right side advanced Riley to third and set the stage for Ozzie Albies to conclude his seven-pitch plate appearance with a game-ending sacrifice fly to right.
“They’re all big,” Snitker said. “It was just good to come back after we lost the lead. Little things like that can maybe give you a little confidence when you’re scuffling a little bit and not hitting on all cylinders.”
There’s no doubt the Braves have issues with their bullpen, especially with a couple high-leverage options simultaneously struggling. But there’s been recent reason to feel better about the injury-depleted starting rotation. Michael Soroka appears ready to join this rotation whenever the team chooses, and Elder’s extended success continues to compensate for the ongoing absences of Max Fried and Kyle Wright.
“I love when he’s pitching,” Albies said. “He just goes out and attacks the hitters.”
Elder began the season as Triple-A Gwinnett’s Opening Day starter, and he now ranks third among all qualified MLB pitchers with a 2.01 ERA. The 24-year-old right-hander limited the Dodgers to one run, despite allowing seven hits over six innings. Mookie Betts’ fifth-inning leadoff homer accounted for the only damage incurred by Atlanta’s bend-but-doesn’t-break hurler.
The Dodgers put two on in each of the first three innings and remained scoreless after a double play followed Miguel Vargas getting hit by a pitch in the fourth. Opponents have hit .289 against Elder with the bases empty and just .169 with runners on base.
“He’s just so poised out there,” Riley said. “Nothing seems to get to him. He knows himself. He doesn’t try to get outside of himself. He pitches to his strengths.”
While Elder was sent to Minor League camp with two weeks left in Spring Training, Ozuna seemed to put himself on the brink of being released when he hit .091 (5-for-55) with a .424 OPS in April. But the slugger has revitalized his career with numerous big hits, like the two-run homer he hit against Tony Gonsolin during Wednesday’s fifth inning.
Gonsolin retired the first 10 batters he faced and had a 14-inning scoreless streak before Matt Olson hit a Statcast-projected 456-foot homer against him in the fourth. The Dodgers' right-hander faltered again in the fifth against Ozuna, who has hit .328 with seven homers and a 1.091 OPS in May.
“He’s continuing to work and have really good at-bats,” Snitker said. “That’s really, really good to see, because we know what he’s capable of when he gets going.”