Like his predecessor Bobby Cox, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez isn’t inclined to give pregame speeches to fire up the squad. But with an eight-game losing streak being as close to desperate times as anyone in the organization cared to be, Gonzalez gave a speech Tuesday.
Judging from the results, he might not wait so long the next time the Braves are in a skid.
Home runs by Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla staked Randall Delgado to an early four-run lead, and the Braves hung on for a 5-4 win against the St. Louis Cardinals to snap an eight-game slide that was the Braves’ longest since April 2010.
“Everybody knows how bad we’ve been scuffling, ain’t no secret,” said Uggla, who hit a three-run homer with two out in the third inning for a 4-0 lead. “Just to get this first one, kind of ease the tension, ease the pressure a little bit, remember what this feels like, I think was obviously a big night.”
Delgado (3-5) allowed six hits and three runs in 5 1/3 innings for his first win since April 17.
The Braves scored more runs than they had in any of their previous 10 games, and Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts for his 14th save in his first save opportunity since May 20.
“We played good baseball today,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t break. We bent a little bit but we didn’t break. I thought Delgado was very good, other than the growing pains of [not getting] shutdown innings” after the Braves scored.
Delgado was 0-5 with a 4.78 ERA in his previous seven starts, and not since April 22 had the Braves scored more than two runs while he was in a game. The only times they scored more than three while he was in games this season were in his first two starts — his only wins before Tuesday.
“We haven’t scored a lot of runs in the last week, so it’s kind of hard for our pitchers,” said Bourn, who hit his fourth career leadoff homer and second in eight days. “They have to try to be too fine. It’s hard to pitch when it’s too fine [a line] all the time. We were able to get on top of them early and get the losing streak out of the way.”
Gonzalez called his injury-plagued team together for a meeting in the afternoon, before the Braves’ clubhouse was opened to reporters. His message to the players was simple.
“We’re a good club,” he said of what he told them. “I told them sometimes you’ve got to remind them that they’re a good club. If you line up some of the starters that we’ve beaten, it’s a sign of a good club. If you as a pitching staff line up some of the clubs that we’ve beaten, it’s a good club. And I reminded them sometimes they forget, as players.
“I don’t want to hear excuses about this guy is sick, this guy can’t see, this guy has got a bad ankle. It happens. It’s just to remind them and let them know we’re a good team and we expect to win baseball games as long as we wear an Atlanta Braves uniform.”
Whether or not they needed reminding, the Braves played a far better brand of baseball than in the first four games of the homestand. They drew more than 160,000 fans to those four, and led for a total of three innings out of 36.
They led the entire way Tuesday, after the Bourn homer in the first inning and Uggla’s three-run shot in the third. Bourn walked with one out in the third and went to second on Martin Prado’s hit-and-run infield single.
“Any time you hit a three-run homer it feels good, because it’s either going to kind of separate you from your opponent or it’s going to put you right back in there,” said Uggla, who has eight homers this season, five with bases empty. “I was just happy to get a pitch I could handle and put a good swing on it. Gave Randall a little bit of a cushion.”
Bourn gave the crowd of 26,218 something to cheer right away when he hit the fourth leadoff homer of his career and second in eight days.
With less than one-third of the season completed, Bourn already has matched his single-season career high with five home runs, including three in last week’s series at Cincinnati.
The homer off St. Louis starter Jake Westbrook (4-4) was Bourn’s fourth in a span of 30 at-bats in eight days, after he totaled 14 homers in 2,576 at-bats in his first 759 games of his major league career.
The Braves hit .178 with 20 runs in their 0-8 skid, and seven or eight runs allowed in each of the first four games on the homestand — the first time Atlanta pitchers allowed as many as seven runs in four consecutive games since July 2008, when they did it in five in a row during a 90-loss season.
“We know we have a good team,” Bourn said. “We know we don’t have everybody at full strength, but we’re still good enough to win games.”
Delgado allowed two grand slams this season, each time issuing a leadoff walk to start the slam inning. He also gave up a leadoff walk in the sixth inning Thursday at Cincinnati, left with the bases loaded, and watched Kris Medlen give up a grand slam to the next batter.
So when Delgado issued a leadoff walk in the fourth inning Tuesday immediately after being staked to a 4-0 lead, then gave up pair of singles to the next two batters, there was some consternation.
Yadier Molina (4-for-4, three RBIs) had the second of the singles in the inning to drive in a run. But Delgado coaxed a couple of groundouts to limit the damage to one more run, which cut the lead to 4-2.
The Braves added what proved to be an important run in the fifth inning. Speedy outfielder Jose Constanza, just up from Triple-A, led off the inning with a single, advanced to second on an errant pickoff attempt, went to third on Bourn’s flyout and scored on a wild pitch.
Gonzalez hit Constanza ninth in the order and batted his pitcher eighth, the first time he’s used that unorthodox approach this season.
“He lead off [in two innings],” Gonzalez said. “We’ll chalk it up that it worked today, hitting the pitcher eighth. It’s nice for [Constanza] to bring a little energy. He did that last year for us and he’s a good defender, he can run and puts the ball in play.”
Delgado was replaced in the sixth after giving a one-out homer to Molina and walking Matt Adams, and Chad Durbin got out of the inning by striking out two of the next three batters.
Reliever Jonny Venters, bumped from the eighth inning to the seventh, continued to struggle in May, allowing a run on three consecutive two-out singles to cut the lead to 5-4. Eric O’Flaherty swapped places with him and pitched a perfect eighth with two strikeouts.
“We’ll keep working on that,” Gonzalez said of the Venters-O’Flaherty pitching order. “Today I thought Jonny made some strides. Now we’ve got to get those ground balls hit at somebody. He’s getting ground balls, and that’s a good thing. And yesterday he got ground balls. So I told Jonny when he came out, I said ‘Hey, we’re getting ground balls which we weren’t getting before. Now we’ve got to find a way to put an infielder in front of them.’”
For the first time in the six-game homestand that ends Wednesday, the Braves left feeling good about their day’s work.
“It’s definitely going to relieve the pressure tonight,” Uggla said. “We’re not leaving with our heads down, walking back into the clubhouse after the game. It’s not any indication of what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week or next month, but it definitely kind of snaps that feeling of, ‘Oh, man, are we ever going to win again?’”