NEW YORK – In the past week Fredi Gonzalez has made three moves that he had never made before, indications the Braves manager learned from last September’s collapse not to stay with the horse he rode in just because it still has a pulse.
The third such move came Sunday, when Gonzalez had closer Craig Kimbrel pitch the ninth inning of a tied game on the road against the Mets at Citi Field. Kimbrel struck out two in a scoreless ninth and Brian McCann’s sacrifice fly in the 10th brought in the go-ahead run for the Braves in a 3-2 win for a three-game sweep and five-game winning streak.
Peter Moylan, barely a week removed from Triple-A and a nearly a year of rehab following shoulder surgery, pitched the 10th inning for the fourth save of his career and first since June 2010.
The aggressive move met with approval in the Braves clubhouse.
“We’re taking no game lightly, no lead lightly,” said McCann, who also gave the Braves a lead with his leadoff home run in the sixth inning, his second homer in as many days after going 24 games without an extra-base hit. “We’re going to play this thing strong throughout the rest of the way and hopefully into the postseason and beyond that. Because we’re a really good team.”
The Braves have won seven of eight games and got big contributions over the weekend from two hitters who had struggled mightily. McCann had five hits and six RBIs in the past two games, and Dan Uggla went 6-for-11 with a homer and three walks in the series.
“It’s something that we really haven’t done a whole lot this year, but we’re capable of doing a lot,” McCann said. “If we get hot at the right time, this is going to be a scary team.”
Now is the right time, third baseman Chipper Jones said.
“B-Mac and Uggs have struggled a lot of the year,” he said. “I know they have some numbers, but they’ve been sporadic. And now that I’m scuffling a little bit, it’s important for somebody else to be stepping up. We all know B-Mac and Uggs can get the job done, and apparently they’re getting their swing back at a very good time.”
Gonzalez, without really announcing it, last week made Martin Prado his starting shortstop until Andrelton Simmons returns, likely Monday. The manager did it because the Braves needed more offense than they were getting with superb defender Paul Janish at shortstop. Gonzalez always said shortstop was the versatile Prado’s least-accomplished position.
This after he broke from tradition by using Kimbrel for a four-out save Wednesday, the first time he’d used the closer for more than one inning since April 2011. And then Sunday, the manager really went outside his own comfort zone by using Kimbrel in the ninth inning of a tied road game, something he said last year he could never do.
“The key word there is ‘never’ – I got lambasted” for saying he could never do it, Gonzalez said. “There’s a lot of variables, for me, for bringing the closer in on the road [in that situation]. One is, how much work does he have going into the situation. Can you go two innings? Where does he fit in the lineup, in a National League game. If you can double-switch and be able to go two innings, multiple innings. And the back end of your bullpen. And where does the opposing lineup fall in the ninth inning. And today it fell where the big boys were coming up.”
Kimbrel (1-1) gave up a leadoff single to Ike Davis in the ninth, then struck out Lucas Duda and pinch-hitter Kelly Shoppach before inducing an Andre Torres groundout. Gonzalez didn’t want to bring him back for the 10th inning because it was Kimbrel’s fourth appearance in five days, including the 25-pitch, four-out save.
“It was one of those situations, [pitching coach Roger McDowell] and I talked it over,” Gonzalez said of using Kimbrel in the ninth. “They’ve got Davis and Duda coming up, and really you feel comfortable – it’s first time I’ve done it, bringing the closer in a tie game on the road – but you feel with the way our pitching matched up later in the game, that that was the game right there.”
Moylan gave up a leadoff single and a two-out walk in the ninth before David Wright popped out to end the game. Being called upon in the save situation was a rewarding feeling for the Aussie sidearmer, who had a difficult surgery rehab and had pitched in four games since being added to the roster Sept. 1.
“It’s a fantastic feeling, but it’s one thing to be trusted and another thing to go out there and do it,” he said. “It was really good to be out there and get the job done.”
Braves starter Tommy Hanson allowed four hits, two runs and one walk with five strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings, and was pulled after 70 pitches when he gave up consecutive doubles to Daniel Murphy and Wright that brought in the tying run.
“If we’re not playing September baseball you let him pitch through that sixth,” Gonzalez said. “But he did a nice job, he really did.”
McCann led off the sixth inning with a long home run over the right-center fence to put the Braves ahead 2-1. It was his 20th homer this season and second in as many days. After hit .155 with no extra-base hits and two RBIs in 24 games from Aug. 1 through Friday, McCann went 4-for-5 on Saturday with a two-run double and two-run homer, then drove in two of the Braves’ three runs Sunday.
Hanson retired the first 10 batters he faced, including two strikeouts in the first inning and two in the second.
“He pitched great,” McCann said. “It’s just one of those things, if it’s in April he probably gets into the seventh or eighth. But it’s late in the season, we’re going to play matchups. That’s kind of where he was at today…. He bounced his [curveball] when he needed to, got ahead, pounded the zone with all four pitches. When Tommy does that, he wins ballgames.”
The first Met to reach base was Murphy on a one-out double in the fourth inning. Murphy scored on Davis’ two-out infield single that Uggla couldn’t field cleanly on the back edge of the infield, giving the Mets a 1-0 lead.
“My fastball command [was good], I was putting it exactly where I wanted it,” Hanson said. “I threw a lot of strikes and didn’t throw a lot of pitches, then kind of got in trouble towards the end there. But I still feel like I made good pitches. Overall I’m happy with it.”
The Braves came back with a run in the fifth after Jose Constanza led off with what initially looked like a triple, but was changed to a ground-rule double after the umpires met and determined that a fan had interfered with the ball when it bounced at the fence.
The speedy Constanza was sent back to second base, and scored one out later on Michael Bourn’s single to center.