ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It’s not as if the Braves are a bad team at home, but their engines have hummed at a higher and far more consistent level on the road during the first quarter of the season.
They did again Friday, when the Braves mounted a two-out, two-run rally in the fifth inning of a 5-3 win against Tampa Bay, opening an interleague series at Tropicana Field with their 10th win in the past 12 road games.
Tommy Hanson (5-3) pitched seven strong innings and Martin Prado homered and doubled for the first-place Braves, who are a season-high 10 games over .500 and lead Washington by 1-1/2 games in the NL East.
“We’re grinding out at-bats, and we’ve done that really well this year,” said Chipper Jones, who left in the eighth inning with a bruised and badly swollen contusion above his left ankle and is likely to miss the remaining two games of his last scheduled series at Tampa Bay.
He smiled and said, “It’s safe to say my career in Tampa is over.”
After the Rays scored an unearned run off Jonny Venters in the eighth inning, Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth for his 12th save.
“We have have a real good team, obviously,” said Hanson, who allowed a run in the second and a run in the third before recording 14 outs in the final 15 batters he faced. “Definitely you can feel it pitching. All the starters feel like at some point [in every game] we’re going to get some runs.
“So giving up two in three innings is not that big of a deal. You’ve got to stop the bleeding right there and try to put up scoreless innings, because at some point we’re going to score.”
Hanson improved to 4-1 with a 3.11 ERA in his past six starts after allowing six hits, two runs and two walks in seven innings.
The score was 2-all before the Braves scored a pair of two-out runs in the fifth against Rays starter James Shields (6-2) on two walks and RBI hits by Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. Freeman went 2-for-5 with two RBIs to give him 31 RBIs in his past 29 games.
Prado’s seventh-inning homer off J.P.Howell increased the lead to 5-3.
“We don’t see this guy [Shields] very often, so we watched a lot of video,” said Prado, who drew a two-out walk to start the fifth-inning rally and advanced to second base on Shields’ errant pickoff throw.
“One idea that I had was to take as many pitches as I could to see which kind of plan they had against me,” Prado said. “There was a couple of pitches that I put the barrel on. I’m glad I got that homer in that [seventh], because we know the game’s close and that Tampa always bounces back in tight games.”
Prado has hit .476 (20-for-42) with nine extra-base hits during a 10-game hitting streak.
“He’s swinging the bat like he did two years ago when he was healthy and made the All-Star team,” said manager Fredi Gonalez, whose Braves lead the majors with 15 road wins and lead the National League with a .652 road winning percentage (15-8). They have a 10-7 home record.
They are 15-4 on the road since starting 0-4 on the season-opening trip that included a sweep at the hands of the Mets in New York and a loss at Houston. Jones was activated before the fifth game of the season and hit a two-run homer in his second at-bat to spark the Braves to a win against the Astros.
They’ve been a different team since that night.
Jones, 40, is retiring after the season. The Florida native got a standing ovation Friday when he came to bat leading off the second inning, then singled on the first pitch from Shields.
Jones scored on a two-out wild pitch, and one inning later, in the third, he was struck in the left calf by a hard, one-hop grounder off the bat of B.J. Upton.
“If you’re standing 85 feet from home plate and somebody hits a rocket at you, you better get a glove on it,” Jones said. “I didn’t.”
He went to one knee and was attended to by a Braves trainer before shaking off the discomfort and staying in the game for four more innings before being replaced by Juan Francisco in the top of the eighth.
“I would be able to tell if it was broken,” said Jones, who did not plan to have it X-rays and was confident it was only a contusion.
“But, my gosh, that really hurt — really,” he said. “I stayed on it. I mean, if I sat down it was going to stiffen up. Finally there in about the seventh, I couldn’t move on defense. I told Skipper [Gonzalez], better get somebody in there that can move.”
Gonzalez said after seeing Jones’ left following the game: “It’s not real pretty right now. It’s between the calf and the a ankle bone, and it’s pretty ugly. Swollen up and bruised real bad. We’ll check him tomorrow, but he might have a tough time playing tomorrow.”
Prado extended his hitting streak with a first-inning double, then scored when Freeman followed with a single to center that put the Braves up 1-0. They pushed the lead to 2-0 in the second after Jones slid at home plate to score on a close play on Shields’ wild pitch.
The Rays answered with a run in the second on Elliot Johnson’s one-out bunt single to the first-base side with runners on corners. They tied the score in the third inning, after loading the bases on Upton’s one-out single off Jones’ leg followed immediately by a pair of walks.
Luke Scott’s sacrifice fly brought in the tying run, with right fielder Jason Heyward making a nice running catch the play to prevent potentially worse damage.
Heyward’s catch began a string of nine consecutive batters retired by Hanson before Scott’s one-out single in the sixth. Hanson induced a double-play grounder by the next batter to make it 11 outs in a stretch of 11 batters, including a 14-pitch, nine-foul-ball strikeout of Carlos Pena before the Scott single.
“I feel real good,” Hanson said. “I think the biggest thing right now is my fastball command; I’m throwing real well, and everything else kind of follows that. I threw a lot more changeups tonight and felt really good with that, too. So hopefully just keep this thing going.”