Even after they’d won seven of the first nine games on their homestand, the Braves knew they had to beat lowly Houston on Sunday to avoid the figurative womp-womp sound of a letdown.
And when the Astros tied the score in the sixth inning, things looked dicey.
But what happened next, and the homestand in general, served to illustrate differences between this Braves team and those of recent seasons.
Chipper Jones scored the go-ahead run on a two-out wild pitch and Paul Janish followed with a two-run single in a three-run sixth inning that sent to the Braves to a 6-1 win at Turner Field.
“The fact that we’re buckling down and really focusing and beating the teams we feel we should beat is the biggest difference so far,” said Kris Medlen, who pitched into the sixth inning in his second impressive start since moving from the bullpen. “Obviously the Nats [Washington Nationals] are still giving us some trouble, but we’ve just got to keep battling. There’s a lot of games left.”
The second-place Braves have won 10 of 12 games and four consecutive series since splitting a four-gamer at Washington two weeks ago. They stayed three games behind the equally hot Nationals atop the National League East standings.
The Braves’ 20-7 record since July 5 includes a 16-4 mark against division opponents.
“We’ve got to keep winning,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves play a three-game series starting Monday night at Philadelphia, then three at New York against the Mets to finish the trip. “We’ve got six more games against [Washington], a series there and a series back here. We’ve got to keep winning, keep it there within two games, because it seems like they’re going to keep winning.
“We’ve got to take care of our business and what’s in front of us. Hopefully stay within striking distance, a game or two, and when we play those guys try to do some damage.”
Medlen was charged with five hits, one run and two walks with six strikeouts in 5-1/3 innings, and the Braves improved to 15-1 in the 16 games he’s started in 2010 and this season (he missed almost the entire 2011 season recovering from elbow surgery).
He’ll stay in the rotation at least until Tommy Hanson returns from the disabled list, and if he keeps pitching like he has it might be difficult to move him back to the bullpen.
“When Tommy comes back if I go back to the ‘pen, I’m going to help just as much,” Medlen said. “It hasn’t change my mindset at all. I know the situation. I know what I can do personally, and if there had to be one person on the pitching staff who had to go back and forth, I would pick me. I just think I’m mentally strong enough, and I’ve been through it before.”
He has allowed two earned runs and nine hits in 10-1/3 innings of two starts, and Medlen is 6-0 with a 3.63 ERA in his past 16 starts, with 19 walks and 71 strikeouts in 94-1/3 innings. He’s said all along, starting is what he prefers.
“It’s so much fun,” he said after Sundays’ game, when he got no decision. “I don’t have the nerves that I had before [when he was a starter in past years]. I feel really confident with Mac and Rossy behind the plate. We execute the gameplan and I think if we do that, we’re going to win games when I pitch. I have that kind of confidence, and the offense is playing real well too.”
“He’s a lot of fun to catch,” said backup catcher David Ross, who put the Braves up 1-0 with a second-inning homer Sunday. “He doesn’t back off at any time. He’s never scared, he’s never afraid to throw any pitch. You call a pitch, he’s going to throw it to the best of his ability.”
The Astros have won just two of their past 19 games, and one of those was a 3-2 win Saturday at Turner Field. The Braves would never have admitted it, but going into Sunday’s game, it felt like a must-win situation if the homestand was to feel successful. And they made it happen.
Ross’s early homer made it 12 homers and 27 RBIs in the past 28 games for him and starting catcher Brian McCann.
Medlen protected the 1-0 lead until the sixth inning, when he was replaced after giving up consecutive one-out singles, the second on a groundball by Brett Wallace. With the right-hander at 79 pitches, after throwing 57 in his first start, Gonzalez decided to bring in reliever Cory Gearrin.
Gearrin gave up a game-tying double to the only batter he faced, Justin Maxwell, who had four hits including two homers Saturday.
With two runners in scoring position, Jonny Venters came in and put out the fire. Venters, who’d been out a week resting a sore elbow, struck out Matt Downs and, after an intentional walk, induced a bases-loaded grounder to end the inning.
The Braves regained the lead in the bottom of the inning, when Jones singled with one out to get things started. Freddie Freeman followed with a single, and one out later Ross hit an infield single to load the bases.
Jones scored on a wild pitch for a 2-1 lead before Janish singled to put the Braves up 4-1. Janish is in the lineup for defense while shortstop Andrelton Simmons recovers from a broken hand. But he came through with the biggest hit of the game Sunday.
“Obviously my priority is defense and I take a lot of pride in it,” Janish said. “But at the same time, especially in circumstances like that, when a [pitcher] is having a good day and we finally get something going, to be able to cash in on it — it’s big for a lot of reasons.”
Bouncing back with a win Sunday against a team they should beat was important, make no mistake.
“As soon as you take your foot off the gas, you’re looking at something like last year,” Ross said. “So we try to stay focused on each game. This [Houston] is a major league team. I know we’re supposed to beat them, but they pitched really good the last two days and we’re lucky to get out of here with a win. We had some guys get key hits and that’s what good teams do.”
“Now it’s important for us to take care of business on the road,” said Jones, who added an RBI double in the seventh inning.