After beating the Nationals on a walk-off error in the ninth inning Friday, the Braves found another unusual way to win Saturday — on a hit jersey.
Officially it was a hit-by-pitch. But let’s just say Andrelton Simmons was in no pain after reliever Ryan Matthues hit the front of his shirt with a pitch with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, bringing in the go-ahead run in a 5-4 Braves win at Turner Field.
“Great team win, crazy win, especially the way those first two innings started,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves trailed 4-0 after two innings and gave up two unearned runs in the second.
Freddie Freeman had three hits including a triple and his 20th home run, and Jason Heyward hit a tying two-run homer in the sixth inning for the Braves, who will go for a series sweep of the National League East leaders on Sunday.
The Braves still trail the Nationals by 6-1/2 games with only 16 to play, but say they haven’t conceded anything.
“Have they won the division yet? No, they haven’t,” Freeman said. “So obviously we do [have a chance]. This is the No. 1 team in the National League and we’re playing them tough. We’ve beat them twice now and we have a chance to sweep them tomorrow. Hopefully we can get a good pitching performance and put some runs on the board.”
“Winning this series makes it more realistic,” said Heyward, whose home run was his 27th of the season and 10th in 38 games. “Our mindset is to go after the division [title] until you can’t. That’s the way you have to look at it. You don’t settle for anything until time is up. Right now we’ve got a chance to win the division still. We’ve got to keep playing good baseball, we’ve got to keep hanging in there, and everything else will take care of itself.”
Craig Kimbrel struck out Tyler Moore with a runner at third base to end the game and collect his 36th save, and the Braves won for the seventh time in 17 games against the Nationals this season, including the past three in a row.
Braves starter Tommy Hanson was charged with four runs (two earned), four hits and one walk and had seven strikeouts in five innings.
David Ross led off the eighth with a single against Mattheus, and one out later Dan Uggla and Chipper Jones drew consecutive walks to load the basis and bring up Simmons.
The rookie shortstop was one of the Braves’ best hitters with runners in scoring position before his two-month stint on the disabled list for a broken hand. Simmons got the job done this time without a hit. He worked the count to 2-2 before Mattheus threw a pitch that hit the front of Simmons’ shirt to force in the go-ahead run.
The Brave have two wins despite going 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position in the first two games of the series. They are 3-for-35 with runners in scoring position in their past six games, including a win at New York and getting swept in three games at Milwaukee.
“At this point in the year it’s a playoff atmosphere and you’re going to have to find ways to win,” Heyward said. “Any way you can do it, whether it’s ugly, pretty, it doesn’t matter. It’s huge to win two games after losing three in a row [at Milwaukee], because you don’t want to let other teams gain ground on you that are behind you, and you would like to gain some ground on this team that’s in front of you.”
The Braves led the NL wild-card standings by 6-1/2 games over St. Louis and 7-1/2 over Los Angeles pending the outcome of the Cardinals-Dodgers game late Saturday.
Hanson remained winless (0-3) with a 4.50 ERA in six starts since returning from a stint on the disabled list for a back strain. He’s pitched fewer than six innings in five consecutive starts, although he’s allowed only two earned runs in each of the past three. The Braves have scored two runs or fewer while Hanson’s been in the game in all of those six starts.
Freeman had hit .198 with a .356 slugging percentage in his past 29 games, and began Saturday with just one extra-base hit (double) and one RBI in 40 at-bats during September. His error in the second inning indirectly led to two unearned runs in the inning as the Nationals opened a 4-0 lead. It was the usually sure-handed Freeman’s fourth error in the past 10 games.
“It was unfortunate,” he said. “It led to two runs. I came up right after that, so I wanted to get things started. I was lucky to get one down the line.”
If that’s what it took to light his fire at the plate, the Braves are probably glad it happened.
Freeman led off the bottom of the inning with a triple down the right-field line that skipped into foul territory and hugged the wall as it rolled toward the corner, giving the big-bodied Freeman time to rumble around the basepaths for his second triple in 308 career games.
Dan Uggla followed with another rarity for him, an opposite-field double to right-center, cutting the lead to 4-1.
“[Freeman] takes a lot of pride in his defense,” Gonzalez said. “And I think he’s one of the best [first basemen] in the league. And maybe that embarrassed him a little bit. I don’t think my gut could take that type of embarrassment for his bat to get going, but whatever it takes. Good for him that he stayed in the fight.”
After Heyward lost a ball in the sun for a two-out Ian Desmond double in the third inning, Desmond went to third on a wild pitch before Hanson struck out Danny Espinosa to avoid damage. Heyward also lost two fly balls in the sun in an Aug. 19 game against the Dodgers at Turner Field.
Freeman’s one-out home run in the fourth was his 20th of the season and cut the lead to 4-2. He pulled Edwin Jackson’s first pitch to the right-field seats, Freeman’s sixth first-pitch homer. Freeman (.493) and Heyward (.486) have the two highest batting averages in the NL when putting the first pitch in play, and Freeman’s put it in play far more times (75) than any of the other league leaders.
After Jackson struck out the side in the fifth, Prado led off the sixth and reached first base on a controversial play when first-base umpire Marvin Hudson ruled that first baseman LaRoche’s foot was off the base when he stretched to get the off-target throw from Jackson. Replays appeared to show LaRoche’s foot touching the base, and Nationals manager Davey Johnson got ejected after coming on the field to argue the call.
Heyward was up next and tied the score with a two-run homer, his 27th. That’s nine more than his career-high before this season, and he’s one homer shy of doubling his total from last season.