Magic number at four as Medlen stifles Padres
Righty continues second-half surge; Freeman hits decisive HR
ATLANTA -- In return for one of Kris Medlen's most complete pitching performances of the season, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez permitted the 27-year-old right-hander to see the eighth inning Saturday for just the third time all year on a night the bullpen needed some rest. The move was a fitting testament to the confidence that Medlen has recaptured within his team in recent weeks after enduring a roller-coaster first half.
"He mixed all of his pitches up, and boy, we pushed him as far as we could push him to try to get him through that eighth inning," Gonzalez said.
Medlen scattered four hits over 7 1/3 scoreless innings as the Braves drew even in their weekend series with a 2-1 win over the Padres.
Freddie Freeman's 3-for-3 night, highlighted by a decisive solo home run in the sixth, keyed the sluggish Atlanta offense and helped the Braves lower their magic number for clinching the National League East to four thanks to Washington's 5-4 loss to Philadelphia.
Medlen lasted into the seventh for his seventh consecutive start, turning in an efficient performance to spell an Atlanta bullpen that used six relievers over four innings in Friday night's 4-3 loss. With his pitch count in triple digits, Medlen came back out to start the eighth, striking out Mark Kotsay before a bloop single off the bat of Will Venable ended his night.
"I think tonight more than even the past few, I established all three pitches early," Medlen said. "I knew I was going to have to establish all three, and usually it takes a couple innings to kind of get the curveball going, but everything felt really good from the get-go, and I just mixed pitches pretty nicely."
Since July 28, Medlen has rekindled the second-half magic he found at the tail end of 2012, posting a 2.44 ERA in his last 10 games. The Braves have won eight of his last nine starts as part of a hot streak that picked up momentum just a few days after Tim Hudson went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
"You do see your team leader go down, and it's something you definitely notice," Medlen said. "I've been trying to pitch like this the entire year, and it just hasn't necessarily happened until now."
He looked as sharp as ever, allowing only one San Diego runner to reach second base. Every meeting between the teams this season has been decided by two runs or fewer, and Medlen excelled with limited run support as he has so often this year to secure the Braves' first win over the Padres in five tries.
"He knows how to pitch," Padres manager Bud Black said. "His fastball had action in the hitting area, he has a tremendous changeup. He's their guy. They're headed to the playoffs and I suspect that he will be their first-game pitcher."
The Braves struggled in their first trip through the order against Padres rookie left-hander Robbie Erlin, who was making just his seventh start. Just as he did Friday, Justin Upton sparked the offense to lead off the fourth, sending a base hit into center field and taking second on Freeman's ground ball through the right side of the infield. Three batters later, Chris Johnson took advantage of a curveball up in the zone, lining a single into left field that allowed Upton to score easily from second.
After Medlen cruised through an eight-pitch sixth, Freeman led off the bottom half of the frame with a shot to the opposite field, his 21st home run of the year. In the process, the Braves first baseman notched his 99th RBI, bringing him within 10 of NL leader Paul Goldschmidt and just one from the first 100-RBI year of his young career.
"I'm healthy this year," Freeman said. "I have some confidence in my eyes, and I did have that little [disabled list] stint in April, but that's about it. I've been able to stick with a routine this year with [hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher], and I've been able to go out there and stay consistent."
In recent weeks, the Braves have run into the type of low-scoring, closely contested games they can expect regularly in October, and for the second time this weekend, they couldn't pad their lead in the later innings when given the opportunity. Evan Gattis struck out to leave the bases loaded in seventh, but reliever David Carpenter was able to preserve a two-run lead after replacing Medlen in the eighth, retiring Chris Denorfia and Jedd Gyorko to strand Venable on third base.
"The pitching staff overall has just done a pretty good job, has been I think the backbone of this team," Medlen said. "We have an explosive offense, and when they get going, it's a pretty cool thing to see, but that's our job, to pick them up when they're not going as well. It's the same thing with us. When we're struggling, they have to score some runs for us, and we've done that all year."
After Elliot Johnson struck out to leave the bases loaded once again in the eighth, closer Craig Kimbrel converted his 37th consecutive save opportunity, but not before allowing an earned run for the first time in 29 appearances dating back to July 4. Chase Headley cranked a leadoff home run to right to cut the Atlanta lead in half, and Kimbrel issued a two-out walk to Ronny Cedeno before getting Nick Hundley to ground out to third base for the final out.
"I'd rather it be 2-0 than 2-1, but his nerves are pretty good, and you feel that he's going to make some good quality pitches," Gonzalez said. "The play that [Paul Janish] made, made it look pretty simple and it wasn't, slow roller coming in with the tying run on second base and two outs. He made a nice play."