ATLANTA -- Ronald Acuna Jr. has fueled a diversified offensive attack and a previously-maligned bullpen has shown signs of becoming a potential strength. But the Braves' rise back to the top of the National League East has been significantly influenced by the rotation's recent success.
After Touki Toussaint celebrated his Major League debut by providing a gem in the first game of Monday's doubleheader at SunTrust Park, Mike Foltynewicz flashed his early-season form with an eight-inning gem that helped the Braves complete the twin-bill sweep with a 6-1 win over the Marlins.
"When you are in a stretch like this, you have to save your bullpen as much as possible," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "When you get outings like this, it sets it up for the last couple weeks of this stretch. It's huge. I didn't know Folty was going out for the eighth. Then, I saw him go out there, and it kind of fires you up that he wanted to go out there again."
Acuna grabbed the spotlight as he became just the fourth player in MLB history to hit a leadoff homer in both ends of a doubleheader. But as the Braves gained a one-game lead over the Phillies and grabbed sole possession of first place for the first time since July 5, they understood the significance of Toussaint and Foltynewicz combining to complete 14 innings.
During last week's four-game series against the Nationals, the Braves lost two starters to injury after just two innings. Concerns about how the lingering effects might hinder the bullpen as the team prepped for 48 games within a 48-day stretch were alleviated when the recently-acquired Kevin Gausman delivered eight innings on Friday and Julio Teheran contributed six innings on Saturday.
Sean Newcomb's four-inning outing during Sunday's win over Milwaukee put some stress on a bullpen that did not feel much pressure during this twin bill. Foltynewicz put a comforting end to a successful day as he allowed one run over eight innings. The All-Star hurler had not completed as many as seven innings since notching his two-hit shutout against the Nationals on June 1.
"The first half of the year, I was a five-and-dive type of pitcher, and it was embarrassing on my part because I'm a starter and I'm supposed to go six, seven or eight innings," Foltynewicz said. "I'm getting a little better the second half of this year. I'm more mentally focused on the game."
The Braves' rotation has posted a 2.83 ERA as the team has won 12 of its past 16 games. This group produced a 5.49 ERA during the 5-13 skid that stretched from July 3-28.
Foltynewicz allowed two earned runs or less in 15 of his first 16 starts and then surrendered at least four earned runs in four straight starts. But the All-Star hurler has rebounded, allowing two earned runs or less in each of his past three outings.
"We're going to need the starters to go deep in games and keep the bullpen to where we can match up and not wear them out," Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
As he was progressing toward lowering his season ERA to 2.86, Foltynewicz received a standing ovation from his teammates after recording a two-out RBI single in the sixth. The 26-year-old hurler had produced a number of ugly swings and plate appearances since he had last notched a hit on April 28.
"He got a standing ovation because I didn't think he was ever going to hit the ball again," Freeman said with Foltynewicz within earshot. "He went with a new stance today. It was wider. [His swing] wasn't so flaily today. He did it all today."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Acuna began his ninth three-hit performance when he drilled Merandy Gonzalez's first pitch over the center-field wall. The Braves rookie also homered off Pablo Lopez to begin the first game. He joins Harry Hooper (1913), Rickey Henderson (1993) and Brady Anderson (1999) as the only players to hit a leadoff homer in both ends of a doubleheader.
"We've been waiting for this kid since the start of Spring Training, and we're happy to have him on our team," Foltynewicz said. "Every single night, he's doing something. I don't know how you pitch to him leading off a game. It's kind of tough."
Acuna has homered in four straight games, the longest streak by a Braves player since Brian McCann in 2012. McCann matched the franchise record when he homered in five straight games in '06.
After homering once every 17.5 at-bats through this season's first 69 games, Freeman entered the second game of this doubleheader with just three homers over 188 at-bats dating back to June 17. But he quieted concerns about his power drought when he aided Foltynewicz's effort with a seventh-inning leadoff homer that traveled a projected 441 feet per Statcast™ -- his longest homer of the season and his eighth longest dating back to 2015.
Freeman looked at a pair of fastballs, one that registered 99.2 mph and the other at 99.7 mph. He then teed off on Tayron Guerrero's 1-1 slider and watched it sail into the right-center-field seats. He has hit each of his past three homers against the Marlins.
"I looked at [Marlins catcher John Holaday] and said, 'Woah,' when the first couple pitches came in," Freeman said. "I just wanted to get my foot down early. I was ready to go, and the pitch went into my barrel."
Braves right-hander Anibal Sanchez will take the mound when the Braves and Marlins resume their series Tuesday at 7:35 p.m. ET. Sanchez recovered quickly from the left calf contusion that limited him to two innings against the Nationals on Thursday. Miami will counter with Trevor Richards, who has a 1.91 ERA over his past six starts.