ATLANTA -- What had the makings of a disastrous weekend proved to be quite memorable thanks to the contributions of a suddenly effective bullpen and the organizational depth that has proven to be very valuable as the Braves have overcome a growing rash of injuries.
Had you not been paying attention to Triple-A Gwinnett’s stats this year, there’s a good chance you weren’t familiar with the name Rafael Ortega. But when Ortega came to the plate in the eighth inning of Sunday afternoon’s 5-3 win over the Dodgers at SunTrust Park, he received a rousing ovation from the hometown fans who still hadn't stopped celebrating the unexpected go-ahead grand slam he had hit in the sixth.
“It’s incredible, that’s really the only way I can say it,” Ortega said through an interpreter. “We’re obviously here. That’s our job, to help the team win in any way that I can. When moments like that happen, it’s honestly just incredible.”
Such can be said of this series win over the Dodgers, which began with the Braves losing center fielder Ender Inciarte during Friday night’s series opener. They beat Hyun-Jin Ryu on Saturday night courtesy of a game-winning homer from Adam Duvall, who was optioned Friday but recalled a day later to account for Inciarte being placed on the injured list.
Thoughts of claiming a second straight win over the Dodgers seemed bleak when Cody Bellinger hit a three-run homer off Max Fried, who retired just two of the first 11 batters he faced on Sunday. Ronald Acuña Jr. added to the afternoon’s tension when he was pulled for admiring what he thought was a homer but turned into a single during a scoreless third inning.
But in the end, the Braves left the potential postseason preview feeling celebratory. Fried turned his rough first inning into a strong five-inning effort and was supported by four scoreless innings from the bullpen and the grand slam Ortega drilled against Dustin May, the heralded Dodgers rookie whose career had previously consisted of three promising starts earlier this month.
Approximately 48 hours after some Atlanta fans began fearing the division lead might drop to 2 1/2 games by the end of the weekend, the Braves found themselves with the same 5 1/2-game lead they carried into this series. At the same time, they gained some confidence against the Dodgers, who entered Saturday having won 12 of their past 15 matchups.
“It’s a huge series win,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said.
Ortega’s slam came when he jumped on a center-cut, 1-2 sinker and drilled it into the Braves’ bullpen beyond the right-center-field wall. This was the extension of the power he’d shown while tallying 21 homers for Gwinnett this year. But few could have expected this contribution from the 28-year-old journeyman, whose only previous homer had come during an Angels loss to the Rangers on May 25, 2016.
Ortega has gone 3-for-10 with a double and a homer since making his season debut on Tuesday.
“Our organization has done a really good job of having Major League ready guys in Triple-A,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s huge. They did a good job of identifying and finding guys like that. It might not be immediate. But at this time of year we get those kinds of guys that have been there and know the routine, that’s really good.”
Time will tell what the Braves will experience over the final six weeks of the season, but they are benefiting from the improved organizational depth general manager Alex Anthopoulos has built this year. He could have saved money by bidding adieu to Duvall at the end of Spring Training. But he kept him around to team with Ortega, creating the outfield depth that has proven quite valuable as three key outfielders -- Nick Markakis, Austin Riley and Inciarte -- are currently on the injured list.
Riley and shortstop Dansby Swanson could begin Minor League rehab assignments at some point this week and be activated by the end of the month. But with Markakis and Inciarte both likely to be sidelined for at least another month, the Braves will continue to depend on the likes of Duvall, Ortega and sure-handed shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, whose glove has proven quite valuable since he was signed on Friday.
“I was anxious and hopeful to be called up,” Ortega said. “Really, I just feel gratitude. I’m grateful to Atlanta and I thank God for this opportunity he has given me.”