Shutout loss keeps Braves' magic number at 4
Atlanta held hitless until sixth inning; Teheran allows two homers
ATLANTA -- The Braves have been able to fall back on their double-digit lead in the National League East in order to keep some perspective on their near-certain playoff chances as they have scuffled through an offensive drought in the first half of September.
In the wake of another less-than-perfect outing for starter Julio Teheran and another convincing victory elsewhere in the division for the hard-charging Nationals, it seemed unlikely that the Braves would have any trouble refocusing ahead of a series in the nation's capital now that the pesky Padres are safely in their rearview mirror.
Teheran surrendered home runs to Chase Headley and Tommy Medica that provided more than enough support for San Diego rookie Burch Smith, who struck out 10 and took a no-hitter into the sixth inning as the Padres dealt the Braves a 4-0 loss on Sunday afternoon. The Braves dropped just their third three-game series at home this season and wrapped up the season series against San Diego with a puzzling 1-5 record.
"We've gone through sometimes some valleys offensively, and then out of nowhere all of a sudden we run off 14 straight or a good seven in a row or something like that and swing the bats really well," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Looking into the next few weeks, that's what we're looking for, getting back to swinging the bats and scoring some runs offensively."
The loss sets up a simple clinch scenario for the Braves as they head to Washington for a three-game series against the Nationals, with their magic number holding fast at four: Win the series, win the division. The Nationals have feasted on the bottom half of the NL East as of late, winning 10 of their last 12 ahead of a pivotal series for them that starts Monday at Nationals Park.
The Braves did not take advantage of their few opportunities on Sunday to push runs across against Smith, who was making just his fifth Major League start and had never lasted more than 5 1/3 innings in a game. After the two starting pitchers traded dominant frames through five innings, Teheran hit the wall his third time through the Padres' order and was lifted after giving up two home runs in a span of three batters.
Leadoff man Will Venable collected his second hit of the day to begin the sixth and notched his 20th steal of the season just ahead of an on-target throw to second from catcher Evan Gattis. Jedd Gyorko followed with an RBI single to left to open the scoring, and cleanup hitter Headley brought Gyorko around with his third home run of the series, taking a slider out to right field on a 3-2 count to put the Braves in a 3-0 hole.
When he reached third base in the bottom half of that inning, Teheran got the chance to compare notes with Headley, who will finish 2013 with four homers in six games against the Braves.
"That was the pitch that I wanted to throw, and I asked [Headley] also if it was a good pitch," Teheran said. "He told me that it was a good pitch, and I said, 'OK, you got me this time.' That's one of those things where you have to just look [skyward]."
Medica cranked a fastball to left field to lead off the seventh for the second home run of his young career. Teheran exited three batters later, having given up four earned runs for the third time in his last six starts.
Smith employed his changeup as a devastating strikeout pitch, generating five of his first six strikeouts courtesy of the off-speed offering. The 23-year-old right-hander scattered three hits over seven shutout innings for his first career win. Freddie Freeman drew a walk in the fourth inning to give the Braves their first baserunner of the afternoon, taking second base on an errant pickoff throw by Smith. But Gattis struck out to strand Freeman on second and cap a stretch of six strikeouts in eight Atlanta outs.
"He was good at throwing his changeup for strikes and throwing his curveball for strikes, too, so it wasn't all wild," third baseman Chris Johnson said. "His fastball was a little erratic, which was tough, but he used it to his advantage, threw his slider for strikes, and when we were caught off guard with his fastball, he was still around the zone."
Teheran foiled his counterpart's bid for the first no-hitter in Padres history with a dribbler that found a hole up the middle in the sixth. Justin Upton pushed Teheran to third with a seeing-eye single of his own, but Freeman popped out to shallow center and Gattis struck out once again to end the threat.
"That was critical," Padres manager Bud Black said. "The middle part of their order is really good. He had them off-balanced. You have to respect the velocity and the change. That's a great combo."
Just as he had last Tuesday in his first start since having his spot skipped in the rotation, Teheran found himself in a first-inning jam, but he was able to escape without allowing a run thanks to a pair of sparkling defensive plays behind him. Upton made a sliding grab to haul in a fly ball headed for shallow left field, and after Headley's single put runners on the corners with two out, Freeman made a diving stop of a shot down the first-base line.
Since they jumped on the Mets for 13 runs in a blowout victory on Sept. 2, the Braves have averaged just under three runs per game in their last 12 contests, a 5-7 stretch that has only raised the stakes for the upcoming series in D.C.
"We're still in a good spot," Johnson said. "There's no panic in this locker room. We know going into Washington, we win the series, we win the division, so it's pretty cool. We'll go in there and win some games and see if we can get this thing over with."