NEW YORK – In their series opener against the Mets on Friday night, the Braves got an earned and scored more than once, two things they had not done since Monday. Shoot, there was no way they could lose.
Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla hit home runs and Braves pitchers tightened the clamps again in a 3-0 win at Citi Field, giving Atlanta three consecutive shutout wins for the first time since September 2002.
“They keep us in the ballgame,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves have a National League-best 3.03 ERA since the All-Star break and tied for the major league lead with 12 shutouts this season. “The starting pitching, and then the bullpen has been terrific.”
Heyward put the Braves ahead with his 25th home run of the season, a tape-measure shot to right-center on a full-count fastball from left-hander Jonathon Niese in the fourth inning. His career-high before this season was 18 home runs as a rookie in 2010, and last season Heyward finished with 14.
The Braves have won five out of six despite a recent dearth of offense. Until Uggla homered with two out in the ninth, it looked as if the Braves would have a three-game winning streak with just one earned run (and three unearned).
Uggla’s homer, his 15th of the season, made it two earned runs.
Paul Maholm (12-9) worked out of a few tights spots while allowing five hits and three walks in 5-1/3 scoreless innings, and the Braves’ bullpen continued its recent dominant stretch. Craig Kimbrel had two strikeouts after a leadoff walk in the ninth and recorded his 35th save and third in as many days.
Maholm pitched a three-hit shutout against the Mets on Aug. 10 is 3-0 with a streak of 22-1/2 scoreless innings against them in four games (three starts) going back to last season.
“It wasn’t the cleanest game,” said Maholm, who bounced back after allowing a season-high seven runs in just two innings in his last start. “Tonight I was a little erratic. They kind of waited me out. I made pitches when I had to, and the defense made some plays. Obviously with J-Hey going deep to get us the one run, and then Uggs coming through with the double and the home run, it allowed the bullpen to kind of relax and do their thing”
“I think whenever you hand the bullpen a lead you’re feeling pretty confident.”
Braves pitchers haven’t allowed a run in 29 consecutive innings.
“It’s unbelievable,” Uggla said of the pitching. “These guys are battling like I’ve never seen. They’ve had runners in scoring position. We’ve only given them one run, so they’ve had no cushion. They’ve really stayed calm and kept their cool and made their pitches, and did what they needed to do to get out of it. It’s really been amazing to watch.”
Uggla doubled in the seventh, went to third on an errant pickoff throw by the catcher, and scored on David Ross’ sacrifice fly. It was Uggla’s first game with two extra-base hits in three months, since a two-homer game at Miami on June 5, and late Friday he proclaimed, “I’m back.”
Uggla was benched for three games through Tuesday, and Gonzalez told him he didn’t know how much playing time he would get the rest of the season. But Friday was his third consecutive start.
“If I have a bad night and go 0-for-4, it’s not about feeling for it anymore, it’s not about searching for it,” Uggla said. “It’s here. This is me. And like I said, I’m going to battle and compete the way I know how to.”
The second baseman still has a league-worst .209 average, and he’s hit .157 with eight homers and 90 strikeouts in his past 78 games. But he does have two doubles and three homers in his past eight games.
“The last month or whatever, I haven’t been on fire or anything, but I knew it was right around the corner,” Uggla said. “And you know what? I just said screw it. There’s no more searching. This ain’t searching time. This is September. This is go out and lay it on the field, and put together and compete to the best of your ability. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Said Gonzalez: “His last six or seven games, he’s been getting some hits. So good for him. We need him to swing the bat.”
Heyward’s fourth-inning homer put the Braves ahead 1-0 and was his 25th of 2012, seven more than his previous career high before this season. He had 18 as a rookie in 2010 and 14 last season.
The Braves posted consecutive 1-0 games wins against Colorado on Wednesday and Thursday, the first time a major league team did that in quarter-century and the first time since 1947 that a Braves team won back-to-back games without scoring an earned run.
They went 3-for-35 with runners in scoring position during the four-game series against Colorado, and the Braves still won the series 3-1. On Friday it was the Mets who wasted numerous scoring opportunities, going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
“The problem is when you don’t put guys on base, that’s when you start worrying about your offense,” Gonzalez said. “When you get people on base, something good’s going to happen sooner or later.”
Maholm worked out of two-runners-on, no-out situations in both the first and third innings. He allowed a leadoff walk by Roger Cedeno and a Daniel Murphy single in the first inning, then got the next three on a flyout, a line-out and a groundout by David Wright, Scott Hairston and Ike Davis, in that order.
He gave up consecutive singles by Niese (10-9) and Cedeno to start the third inning, them Maholm retired the next three batters on two strikeouts and a Hairston flyout to end the inning.
The Mets also had two on with one out in the fourth, and Maholm worked out of that with a groundout and strikeout by the bottom two hitters in the order.
After the Mets put two runners on again in the sixth with a single and a Chipper Jones throwing error, reliever Chad Durbin replaced Maholm and struck out Josh Turner. Then left-hander Luis Avilan replaced Durbin and induced a Lucas Duda groundout to end the inning.
Jonny Venters pitched a perfect seventh and Eric O’Flaherty had two strikeouts in the eighth before Kimbrel came on to pitch for the third consecutive game, including a four-out save Wednesday that was the first major league save of more than an inning.
The last time the Braves recorded three consecutive shutouts was Sept. 4-7, 2002 against Pittsburgh and Montreal, when their starting pitchers were Damian Moss, Kevin Millwood and Greg Maddux.