Eleventh heaven: J-Up's blast keeps Braves streaking
Slugger rips go-ahead homer in eighth to give Atlanta 11 wins in a row
WASHINGTON -- When the Braves completed this season's first two weeks in near-perfect fashion, they were fueled by the consistent power provided by Justin Upton. Four months later, they are once again cruising with the benefit of Upton's latest impressive surge.
With a little less than two months remaining in this season, the Braves are not taking anything for granted. But after notching their season-best 11th consecutive victory courtesy of the decisive eighth-inning home run Upton hit in Monday night's 3-2 win over the Nationals, they are certainly feeling quite comfortable as they rest atop the National League East standings.
"When you're in first place, you want to step on their necks, especially when we've got this big of a lead," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We can expand it a little bit more against them. I think we set the tone tonight."
While playing better than they have since beginning this season 13-2, the Braves have produced their longest winning streak since winning 15 straight during the 2000 season. In the process, they have gained a once-unthinkable 13 1/2-game lead over the second-place Nationals.
"The goal every season is to win as many games as you can," Upton said. "So I don't care what kind of lead we've got. We've got to come out and win every night. That is our goal. At this point, every series is big."
Along with having to stare at this significant deficit, the Nationals came away from this game deflated by the fact that they were not able to capitalize after putting a runner on third with just one out in the ninth against Jordan Walden, who handled Atlanta's closing duties because Craig Kimbrel had pitched in each of the three previous nights.
Walden notched his first save of the year when Chad Tracy's game-ending fly ball was appropriately caught in left field by Upton, who had provided the Braves their one-run advantage when he opened the eighth inning with an eight-pitch at-bat that concluded with him lining Tyler Clippard's changeup over the left-field wall.
The Braves' early-season success was significantly influenced by Upton, who exited April with a Major League-leading 12 home runs and then fell into a rut during the two months that followed. The streaky outfielder began showing signs of life once July arrived and now finds himself in one of those enviable zones. He has batted .452 (14-for-31) in his past seven games and collected four home runs in his past five games.
This hot streak began immediately after Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to move Upton up to the second spot in the order, where he is now sandwiched between Jason Heyward and Freeman.
"I've had a pretty good view of him the past few games," Freeman said. "He's been unbelievable."
Upton's singles in the third and fifth innings set the stage for Freeman to deliver RBI singles against Stephen Strasburg, who allowed two runs and lasted seven innings in his latest frustrating outing against the Braves. He is 0-1 with a 2.14 ERA in four starts against Atlanta this year.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson expressed his frustration after the game when he was asked about the fact that Strasburg had allowed Upton to get a big jump and steal second base uncontested just in front of Freeman's two-out single in the fifth.
"I mean, we've worked with him and worked with him," Johnson said. "Too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He's very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways. We throw over there more than we want to because of that, and he doesn't even wait to do that. It's always right from the get-go. That's still a work in progress."
Braves starting pitcher Mike Minor was relieved after surrendering just two runs and completing six-plus innings on a night when he had what he described as his "worst stuff" of the season. He gave the Nationals a one-run, first-inning advantage on Adam LaRoche's two-out double that would have plated two runs had Andrelton Simmons not added to his defensive highlights with a strong pinpoint throw that denied Wilson Ramos' bid to score from first base.
Minor allowed the Nationals to tie the game after Ryan Zimmerman and Ramos began the sixth with consecutive singles that gave Anthony Rendon a chance to deliver a sacrifice fly.
The most clutch pitching performance of the night was produced by David Carpenter, who entered after Minor allowed Scott Hairston to begin the bottom of the seventh inning with a double.
Carpenter began his outing by striking out pinch-hitter Jayson Werth, who earlier in the day was named the NL's Player of the Month for July. The strong-armed right-handed reliever then retired Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond to leave Hairston stranded at second base and keep the game tied.
"I know it very easily could have been five or six runs," Minor said. "So I'm thankful for only two runs and we squeezed out a win. It was a big team win against a good team and in a big series."