ST. LOUIS -- Everything seemed to be stacked against the Braves as they neared the end of a taxing cross-country road trip and faced the challenge of erasing a three-run deficit against an intimidating closer with triple-digit velocity.
But instead of being doomed by an ugly fourth inning filled with defensive blunders on Sunday night at Busch Stadium, the Braves tallied what arguably stands as their best win so far. They chased flamethrower Jordan Hicks during a three-run ninth and then celebrated a 4-3, 10-inning win over the Cardinals after Luke Jackson preserved one-run lead gained when Brian McCann drew a bases-loaded walk.
“It was not a clean baseball game we played,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “But that’s the thing about this team. We fight for 27 outs. Against Hicks, it’s never an easy task.”
This was a fitting way for the Braves to conclude the first third of a season that began with an injury-depleted rotation being exposed in Philadelphia. Another disheartening sweep was endured when the Braves left Dodger Stadium a game below .500 (18-19) on May 8. But the defending division champs have since righted themselves, winning 12 of their past 16 and pulling within 1 1/2 games of the first-place Phillies in the National League East.
“I’m happy with where we are,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We’ve progressed.”
Meanwhile, the Cardinals have regressed since their splendid April. Their 16th loss in their past 22 games was decided when McCann drew a five-pitch walk off left-hander Tyler Webb, who had loaded the bases by intentionally walking Austin Riley. St. Louis manager Mike Schildt chose not to bring a righty out of the ‘pen and he didn’t gamble with Webb against Riley, who is 6-for-11 with four homers against southpaws.
McCann’s walk was decisive, but the plate appearance of the night came via the game-tying, one-out single Ozzie Albies produced at the end of his 10-pitch battle against Andrew Miller. Albies fouled off five straight pitches, four of which were sliders, before lacing his key single to right.
“That’s what it’s about right there,” Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “As a kid, that’s what you want. He relished that moment off a guy that has swing-and-miss stuff.”
While the offense took center stage during the final innings of this victory, it was achieved with the help of Julio Teheran, who posted a 0.98 ERA in five May starts, and four relievers who limited the Cardinals to one hit over five scoreless innings. Teheran’s five-inning effort was marred by the fourth-inning defensive mistakes Riley and Donaldson made before contributing to the ninth-inning rally.
Though the rotation and bullpen have both significantly improved over the course of the past few weeks, the Braves have never had much reason to worry about their capable lineup that came to life in the ninth. The comeback began with Freeman lacing a double against Hicks’ 101.1 mph sinker, then scoring when Donaldson singled against the closer’s 102.5 mph heater.
Donaldson’s single against Zack Wheeler on April 12 had accounted for one of the three hits the Braves had tallied against 100-plus mph pitches since the start of 2018. Per Statcast, Freeman had gone hitless in the nine previous career at-bats that concluded against a triple-digit pitch.
“Veteran guys against 100-plus is kind of what you need,” Freeman said. “We’re not trying to do too much. We’re just trying to get a good pitch to hit. He left us a couple good pitches to hit. An 0-2 pitch to me, I was just trying to put it in play. Luckily, I was able to sneak it over the bag.”
While Donaldson’s fourth-inning defensive miscue was an errant throw to the plate, Riley’s was more embarrassing, as he dropped Kolten Wong’s routine fly ball. But that error and the fact he had struck out in 15 of his most recent 32 at-bats entering the ninth was forgotten when he chased Hicks with a RBI single.
The Braves’ offense began rolling when Ronald Acuña Jr. was moved to the top of the lineup on May 10, and the oft-maligned bullpen has started to take shape since Jackson became the closer and both Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint, who produced two scoreless innings Sunday, were converted from starters to relievers.
There may continue to be some growing pains as Riley attempts to gain comfort as an outfielder, but as he has homered five times and posting a 1.060 OPS through his first 12 games, he has bolstered the confidence and enthusiasm the Braves will now carry into the final two-thirds of the season.
“Guys are starting to find their roles and everyone is starting to come together,” Freeman said. “We’ve been playing good baseball for a couple weeks now.”