ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Tim Hudson won a pitchers’ duel with All-Star David Price and got support in the form of a home run from old pal David Ross. But the most important play in Sunday’s 2-0 win against Tampa Bay turned out to be a baserunning mistake by the Rays, for which the Braves felt fortunate.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, and Jonny Venters’ command faltering, Luke Scott’s hard-hit grounder struck Rays baserunner Carlos Pena in the leg as he ran toward second base. Pena was called out and the Braves, having avoided a potential game-changing moment, held on for the win to take the interleague series 2-1.
“We had some baseball gods on our side,” Hudson said. “We’ve had plenty of times where it went the wrong way for us, so it’s nice to finally be on the positive side of a crazy play like that, which essentially sealed the win for us.”
Hudson (3-1) allowed four hits and two walks in 7-2/3 innings and has a 1.25 ERA in his past three starts, and Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts for his National League-leading 13th save as the Braves dealt the Rays their first shutout of the season.
But that other out, the third one of the eighth, threatened to be the Braves’ undoing.
“That eighth inning was a little interesting,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose first-place Braves got their seventh win in 10 games and stayed 1-1/2 games ahead of Washington in the NL East. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an inning in the major leagues end the way that inning ended. But we’ll take it.”
After Ben Zobrist grounded out for the second out of the eighth inning – 14 of Hudson’s 22 outs were groundouts – B.J. Upton hit an infield single and Gonzalez called on Venters to face left-handed hitter Matt Joyce, whose grand slam Saturday beat the Braves.
Lefties Pena and Scott followed Joyce in the order, but Gonzalez said he certainly didn’t plan on Venters having to face all of them. But that’s how it went down.
Venters not only hit Joyce with a pitch, he hit Pena with the next pitch, making it three consecutive appearances for Venters – and four of his past five – in which he’s allowed at least two baserunners. He gave up at least one run in three of those.
“It’s just mechanical,” Gonzalez said. “He’s flying open and his arm drags and he chases those lefties. But we’ll get it fixed.”
Pitching coach Roger McDowell came out to chat briefly with Venters, who was left in to face Scott. After fouling off an 0-2 pitch, Scott hit a bullet toward the right side between second baseman Dan Uggla and first baseman Freddie Freeman. Uggla lunged to his left, but it never got to him.
The ball bounced off Pena’s leg and rolled slowly toward the front edge of the infield. The umpire immediately called him out. Inning over.
“Got lucky,” Venters said. “At first I didn’t know what had happened. I started to run after the ball; I didn’t know what had happened. But we got lucky and won the game. A win’s a win.”
Ross’ third-inning homer and Jason Heyward’s flare of an RBI single in the sixth had given the Braves a 2-0 lead, but for a moment a lot of folks at Tropicana Field thought the game would be tied when Scott hit the ball squarely.
“There was a little luck going our way,” Ross said. “They did a good job off Jonny; Jonny was a little amped up, flying open a little bit. But he settled down and Luke Scott hit a good pitch. Hit it hard, and it was right at Pena. I was so excited…. That ball might have got through. I don’t know if Uggla was going to be able to knock it down. So we got a little luck our way, and it was fun.”
Uggla was already off his feet when the ball hit Pena. Did he think he would’ve been able to field it?
“I don’t know,” Uggla said. “I would have had to dive for it, so I don’t know. I was pretty happy when I saw it hit him though. I’m not going to lie. He hit it hard, and it was heat-seeking. Got him.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “I don’t know why it played out exactly the way it did. Sometimes you take your eye off the ball while you are running and just look towards second base, as opposed to looking in. You are always taught to look in because you could get hurt if you don’t.”
Pena said, “The right thing to do there is to go on the swing. So as soon as the hitter has intent to swing, we’re going. That’s the way we do it over here, and the way we should run the bases. That caught me in mid-stride. It’s just a helpless feeling because I couldn’t go anywhere; I think I was in the air when the ball hit me. It was a rocket.”
It was a beautiful rocket for the Braves, who didn’t let Hudson’s dominant performance go wasted.
“It’s never a surprise when he goes out and pitches well,” Ross said. “We rely on him to be our guy, our stopper, our ace, whatever you want to call it. I love catching him. He’s a great teammate and has huge… He competes, know what I’m saying?”