PHILADELPHIA -- Sitting in the visitor's dugout less than two hours before first pitch, Braves manager Brian Snitker didn't want to place any extra emphasis on his club's six-game road trip through Philadelphia and D.C., instead saying "every game this time of year is important."
Regardless, Snitker wasn't taking any chances in Friday's series opener against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, which the Braves took 9-2.
With his club leading by four runs in the bottom of the fifth, Snitker lifted rookie sensation Mike Soroka with the bases loaded and two outs. On the one hand, Snitker was removing a guy who had allowed only one earned run to that point and has a 2.44 ERA on the season after Friday’s outing, with a 1.19 mark on the road. At the same time, the skipper was taking out a 21-year-old pitcher who had allowed eight hits in 4 2/3 innings and had just issued a walk to Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins on his 88th pitch of the night to bring the tying run to the plate.
“That’s big when you can do that,” Snitker said. “Great job by Nuke, then you come in and add some more runs, because anything could have happened in that game right there.”
Though it should have been an ideal start to a pivotal road trip, the Braves may have lost veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a left wrist injury. He exited the game shortly after being hit by a 91 mph fastball in the sixth inning, and will undergo further tests on Saturday, though Snitker said “it doesn’t look good.”
Markakis’ injury came on a night when Atlanta extended its lead in the National League East to 5 1/2 games over the Nationals (who lost to the Dodgers) and 6 1/2 games over the third-place Phillies.
Though Soroka came one out shy of qualifying for the victory, the right-hander has allowed two earned runs or fewer in each of his 10 road starts this season. He's just the fifth Braves pitcher in the Live Ball Era (since 1920) to do that in 10 consecutive road starts, joining a trio of Hall of Famers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Phil Niekro, as well as Jesse Barnes, who did it in the 1923-24 seasons. Soroka is the only one to do it in 10 straight road outings within a single season.
However, it's hard to blame Snitker for turning to the bullpen.
Soroka had allowed three hits in that fateful fifth inning, including a 102 mph leadoff single to Adam Haseley and an RBI single to Bryce Harper that jumped off his bat at 107 mph. Opponents are hitting .326 against Soroka over his last eight starts -- and he's up to 107 innings this season, nearly double the 56 1/3 frames he worked while dealing with shoulder issues last year. His most in any professional season is 153 2/3 innings in 2017.
“It’s tough,” Snitker said. “He had 37 pitches in that inning. I thought he was out of gas when he walked [Hoskins]. He was kind of cooked there.”
It also helps that the bullpen has proved it's up to this type of challenge plenty of times before. Though the Braves continue to evaluate ways to upgrade their bullpen prior to Wednesday's Trade Deadline, this is one area where the relief corps has consistently stepped up.
Friday marked the 17th time this season that a Braves reliever has inherited a bases-loaded situation -- and Newcomb's clutch out was the 10th time they didn’t allow a single runner to score. Atlanta hasn't allowed all three inherited runners to score even once -- and it has conceded multiple runs in only three of those 17 jams.
“Any time they have a chance to get closer or tie it up with one swing of the bat, there’s some big momentum waiting there to go either way,” Newcomb said. “Obviously, getting out of that inning, whether it had been Soroka or me or anyone else out in the ‘pen, that helped swing it in our favor a bit. Then it really went our way when the guys come in and pile on like that.”
While 4 2/3 innings matched Soroka’s shortest start of the season (he also lasted just 4 2/3 against the Phillies on July 4), with the exception of a June 23 start in which he went just two innings and exited after being hit by a pitch, the Braves used a team effort to even the season series with the Phillies at 5-5. Ronald Acuña Jr. went 2-for-4 with three RBIs to extend his on-base streak to 30 games, Brian McCann clubbed a homer to the second deck in right field for his 10th of the season and four relievers combined to allow just one run over 4 1/3 innings -- including right-hander Jeremy Walker, who tossed a scoreless ninth in his big league debut.
“It was huge,” Soroka said. “We all know how important this one is, especially this whole road trip. We had a chance to come out flying again, and that’s what we did.”