C. Johnson makes Indians pay in walk-off win
Schafer sets up heroics with single, stolen base in three-hit night
ATLANTA -- Chris Johnson knew Indians manager Terry Francona's best move was to intentionally walk Freddie Freeman. But instead of making a logical evaluation, Johnson headed to the plate with a chip on his shoulder.
With Jordan Schafer on second base and two outs in the ninth inning, Francona had no desire to allow his right-handed sidearm reliever Joe Smith to face Freeman, who is hitting .426 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The logical choice was to go with the righty-righty matchup against Johnson.
But this proved to be one of those pick your poison decisions when Johnson laced a sharp single to left field that allowed the speedy Schafer to score from second base and provide the Braves a chance to celebrate with a 3-2 walk-off victory on Wednesday night at Turner Field.
"It's obviously not personal," Johnson said. "It's Freddie Freeman hitting in front of me with a base open with a righty on the mound. But yeah, any time somebody gets walked in front of you on purpose to pitch to you instead, you want to come up big and that's what I did."
After Paul Maholm provided six solid innings that were aided by Andrelton Simmons' latest dazzling double-play turn, Luis Avilan extended his recent struggles by surrendering a one-run eighth-inning lead. But all was forgiven in the Braves' ninth, which was sparked by Schafer, who capped his three-hit night with a one-out infield single and then a steal of second base.
Once Freeman drew his free pass, Johnson laced his game-winning single past diving shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Left fielder Michael Brantley's accurate throw was not quite strong enough to prevent Schafer from diving across the plate just ahead of catcher Carlos Santana's tag.
"I don't know how many guys other than [Schafer] that we have on our club that can score there," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who has seen his club win three straight since recording a third consecutive loss last Saturday for the first time since July 5.
While hitting .253 in his past 19 games, Johnson lost his lead in the National League batting title chase. But with two game-winning hits over the course of the past eight days, the gritty third baseman continued to show his ability to deliver in key situations -- hitting .344 with runners in scoring position.
"This is a really good ballclub," Johnson said. "We're excited we've been able to get a couple big wins from them."
With wins in the first two games of this series with the Indians, the Braves have maintained their 13-game lead in the National League East standings and stalled the momentum the Tribe had created while winning nine of its previous 13 games.
The Indians had a prime opportunity to blow things open when Avilan surrendered consecutive singles to open the eighth inning and then issued a one-out walk to load the bases for Mike Aviles, who delivered a game-tying sacrifice fly to right field.
With runners on the corners and two outs, Cabrera took off toward second base and abruptly stopped, thinking Brantley had fouled a pitch. This enabled catcher Brian McCann to throw the ball to Simmons, who chased Cabrera back toward first base before applying the threat-ending tag.
"We're trying to yell," Francona said. "It's kind of a frustrating feeling. He thought it was a foul ball and there's nothing you can do. You're too far away. Everybody was yelling, but he thought it was foul."
Cabrera's mistake aided Avilan, who has allowed three runs over his past seven appearances. The reliable left-hander had allowed just one run in the 35 appearances that preceded this stretch. He has been forced to work four of the past five days while Jordan Walden has dealt with an unspecified leg ailment that Gonzalez said has improved to the point that he could be available to pitch within the next couple of days.
"It's hard with a one-run lead in eighth inning in the big leagues to try to stop it all the time," Gonzalez said. "I'll take my chances with [Avilan] always."
Avilan's rocky eighth inning erased the lead the Braves had grabbed while recording four hits, including Schafer's two-out opposite-field single in the second inning against Cleveland All-Star right-hander Justin Masterson, who was otherwise impressive over six innings.
While recording five hits in his past 12 at-bats, Schafer has escaped the struggles he experienced when he came off the disabled list earlier this month. At the same time, his recent success in the leadoff spot has helped compensate for the significant absence of Jason Heyward, who fractured his jaw last week.
"I've played with him for a while and this is the best I've seen him swing the bat," said Johnson, who previously played with Schafer on an Astros club that was managed by current Cleveland third-base coach Brad Mills.
Maholm's only damage came via Avila's two-out solo home run in the fourth inning. The Braves left-hander has compiled a 6.08 ERA in the 14 starts he has made outside of Atlanta. But he has posted an impressive 1.88 ERA in eight home starts.
"Hopefully most of the time from here on out, I get more home starts," Maholm said.