NEW YORK – When he faced the New York Mets on July 15 in his first major league start in two years, Braves pitcher Ben Sheets and his medical marvel of an arm allowed just two hits in six scoreless innings.
On Sunday night, they tagged him for three hits and two runs before Sheets recorded his second out.
The Mets scored three runs in the first two innings and built a five-run lead before hanging on — barely — for a 6-5 win at Citi Field, where the crowd let out a few collective gasps before the Braves’ four-run ninth-inning rally fell short.
Martin Prado had a two-run, two-out double in the ninth — the only Braves hit in a wild inning — before Jason Heyward struck out with two runners in scoring position to end it.
“The guys battled the whole game, and we had the right guys at the plate in the ninth inning,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves finished with a 4-2 record and two series wins on a six-game trip that began in Philadelphia.
“I love this team because we battle all the way to the end,” Prado said. “We came up short, but we tried. We played hard.”
Freddie Freeman’s second-inning leadoff homer accounted for the Braves’ only run in eight innings against Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese (9-6), but they mounted an improbable rally against some shaky relievers in the ninth on four walks, a hit batter and Prado’s opposite-field bases-loaded double.
Prado’s hit looked like it might get to the corner and and clear the bases to tie the score. But right fielder Mike Baxter fielded it before it got to the wall and threw to the cutoff man, and the Braves held up Mike Bourn at third.
“They were playing deep,” Prado said. “The only thing I could do was go to second and try to get them to throw to second and Michael try to be aggressive. I knew he was running fast and we’d have a chance. But there was no chance because they he didn’t want that run to score. He threw to the cutoff man.”
When the ball was hit, Gonzalez said he thought there might be a chance for Bourn to score if it got to the corner.
““Either that or up against the wall,” he said. “And it didn’t do either. I’m thinking if it hugs that side wall there, he’s going to spend a little more time digging for it, maybe we have an opportunity for Snit [third-base coach Brian Snitker] to send him. Other than that, he had no chance. It would have been really hard to send him there and you’ve got the middle of the order up.”
Heyward followed Prado and struck out swinging at a slider. The pitch squirted away from catcher Rob Johnson and Heyward raced toward first base, nearly beating a low throw that first baseman Ike Davis had to make a good play on to catch.
“Even the last strikeout to end the game, I think it surprised [Johnson] that Jason was going to run that hard down to first base, and we made it a bang-bang over there,” Gonzalez said. “I was thinking with the trajectory of that ball, it looked like it might have been in the dirt and here we go.”
Said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who started the ninth-inning rally with a leadoff walk: “[The strike 3 pitch] needed to skip away a little farther…. We just dug ourselves too big a hole tonight. Gave ‘em a scare. That’s what you want to see out of your ballclub when you’re down like that. Be patient. If guys want to give it to you, take it.
“I think we only got one hit that inning, but we threw a little scare into them.”
After Paul Janish’s two-out single in the second, the Braves didn’t get another hit until Brian McCann’s two-out single in the seventh.
It was only the fourth loss in 18 games for the Braves, who missed out on an opportunity to pick up a game on National League East leader Washington after a rare loss earlier Sunday by the sizzling Nationals. Atlanta still trails them by 4-1/2 games.
In his sixth start since coming out of semi-retirement, Sheets (4-2) allowed a season-high five runs runs (four earned) and eight hits in six innings, with one walk and five strikeouts. He threw 70 strikes in 107 pitches, also a season-high.
Sheets has lost two of his past three starts, allowing 26 hits and 10 runs (eight earned) in those three games after giving up just 13 hits and one run in 18 innings while winning his first three starts.
“Just got to find a way to get out the gates better,” Sheets said. “Give myself a chance to get some momentum. If you know anything about my career you know that first innings are not very good. And I’ve just got to be better, man. Just really got to be better than that.”
In an Aug. 1 loss against Miami, the only three earned runs he allowed came in the first inning. Sheets gave up a season-high 11 hits and four runs (one unearned) in 6-2/3 innings in that one.
The Braves trailed 2-0 when Freeman led off the second inning with his 15th home run of the season and second in as many nights. He has 17 hits including five doubles and four homers in his past 10 games against the Mets, and 16 RBIs in his past eight games against them.
After Janish’s two-out single in the second, Niese retired 15 of the next 16 batters, with only a Heyward walk disrupting that stretch.
Michael Bourn led off the game with a double and the Braves didn’t have another extra-base hit until Martin Prado’s two-out double in the eighth.
The Braves looked ready to jump out to another early lead after beginning the first inning with a Bourn double and Prado walk. But Niese struck out Jason Heyward and induced a double-play grounder by Chipper Jones.
Atlanta didn’t have another runner reach base until the eighth inning, other than Freeman trotting past it when he homered.
They scored their other four runs in the ninth when reliever Frank Francisco issued bases-loaded, two-out walks to Juan Francisco (who fouled off four consecutive full-count pitches) and Bourn before Prado’s two-run single. The Mets’ David Edgin had walked two and hit Freeman with a pitch to load the bases, and Bourn was nearly hit in the face by his ball-4 pitch from Francisco.
“If they’re not going to throw strikes, you’ve got to take what they’re going to give you. We threw some good at-bats up there. Juan had a great at-bat. Their lefty [Edgin] was a little wild there to start the inning. So was Francisco. But Jon Rauch saves the day.”
Rauch, the Mets’ third pitcher in the ninth inning, struck out the only batter he faced, Heyward.
For Sheets, it was the first of his six starts that wasn’t a “quality start” of six innings or more with three earned runs or fewer.
Opposing hitters were 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position against him in his first five starts, but that streak ended when Ike Davis’ singled to drive in the second run of the first inning. He followed an RBI double by David Wright, who went to third on Heyward’s throwing error.
Three of the first four batters he faced got hits, and the Mets pushed the lead to 3-1 in the second inning with a run on two singles and a sacrifice bunt.
After Ruben Tejada’s two-out RBI single in the second inning, Sheets settled down and retired nine of the next 10 batters, allowing only a walk in that span. But that ended in the fifth when Wright doubled with two out and scored on Davis’ single. The Mets pushed the lead to 5-1 when Jordan Valdespin led off the sixth with a homer.
“He settled down” after the first two innings, Gonzalez said. “I think the only pitch that I saw that was out over the plate was that change-up to Valdespin, and he put it right in the wheelhouse. But other than that, a couple of base hits that go through the infield. But he gave us an opportunity to win the game.”
It was the second homer against Sheets in 38 innings, both in his two starts on the trip. John Mayberry’s homer Monday at Philadelphia was the only run allowed in 7-1/3 innings by Sheets in a 6-1 Braves win.