Clutch Francoeur lifts Braves past Bucs
Right fielder comes through with winning hit in the ninth
ATLANTA -- As they were experiencing the conclusion of a 72-minute rain delay at Turner Field on Saturday night, the Braves weren't sulking about the fact that the Pirates had just completed a game-tying, four-run seventh against the usually stingy Rafael Soriano.
Instead, Tim Hudson and Brian McCann were among the many Braves taking advantage of an opportunity to poke jabs at Jeff Francoeur while enjoying the fact that much of the rain delay entertainment had been provided via the lengthy Francoeur documentary that was aired on the stadium's large video board.
"It was all of my high school stuff, so I was just catching a lot of stuff in the dugout about it, mostly from Huddy and Mac," Francoeur said. "So I knew I had to do something big tonight."
Like during his storied athletic career at Parkview High School in suburban Atlanta, Francoeur has proven his flair for the dramatic at the Major League level. Given the incentive to do it again or face further fun-loving ridicule, he added yet another storybook conclusion with a two-out, walkoff RBI single that ended the hard-fought and sometimes frustrating 5-4 win the Braves claimed over the Pirates on Saturday.
"[Francoeur] has done it a lot, always with two outs," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, who saw his team win a fifth consecutive home game for the first time this season and stay within 1 1/2 games of the front-running Mets in the National League East race.
Francoeur, who is hitting .309 with two outs and runners in scoring position this season, directed Shawn Chacon's 2-1 sinker back up the middle to easily score Willie Harris and make sure the Braves wouldn't leave the bases loaded for a second straight inning.
"He's just doing his job, trying to go out there and make himself a good Major League Baseball player," said Andruw Jones, whose opposite-field three-run homer in the first inning off Tom Gorzelanny was just as important as the fact that he drew an eight-pitch walk off Chacon just ahead of Francoeur's game-winner.
For a while, it didn't appear the Braves would need to claim their second walkoff win of the season, and first since April 30. With six scoreless innings that were interrupted by just two hits, Chuck James continued his dominance of the Pirates. In 13 scoreless innings against them this year, he's surrendered just three hits.
But with James having thrown 92 pitches, and the knowledge that opponents were hitting .447 against him after the sixth inning this year, Cox opted to turn to a well-rested bullpen. It was a calculated decision that nearly proved disastrous.
While allowing three of the first five batters he faced to reach safely in the seventh inning, Tyler Yates prolonged a forgettable July, during which he's allowed at least a run in four of six appearances.
After surrendering a run and then registering the inning's second out with a strikeout of Jack Wilson, Yates was replaced by Rafael Soriano, who promptly saw Ryan Doumit tie the game by drilling a 3-2 delivery over the right-center-field wall for a three-run homer.
Soriano, who had surrendered just two previous runs this season in games the Braves weren't leading or trailing by at least five runs, entered the game having limited left-handed hitters to a .155 batting average. Thus it seemed appropriate for Cox to put his most dominant reliever up against the switch-hitting Doumit with runners at second and third with two outs.
With Wil Ledezma stuck in Venezuela because he destroyed his passport and visa in a washing machine, Cox doesn't currently have the luxury of having a left-handed reliever in his bullpen. With this in mind, he felt his best option was to go with Soriano against Doumit, who has collected each of his seven homers this year from the left side of the plate.
"Normally, Yates and Soriano are the guys to hold it, easily, but tonight it just didn't happen," Cox said. "Left-handers are hitting [.155] against [Soriano] and I thought he was probably a lock to strike the guy out."
After Soriano ended the seventh with a strikeout, heavy rains prompted the 72-minute delay, during which Francoeur's high school dominance was well-chronicled. The documentary showed him returning interceptions for touchdowns, registering championship-clinching strikeouts on the mound and, of course, beginning his habit of delivering clutch hits.
"After seeing that video, I knew it was going to be time for him to deliver tonight," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said as he exulted in some postgame jubilation with the team's chairman and president Terry McGuirk.
Harris got things started in the ninth with a leadoff single, and moved to second base on Yunel Escobar's sacrifice bunt. After retiring Edgar Renteria, Chacon issued an intentional walk to Chipper Jones, who enjoyed a three-hit evening. When Andruw Jones' patience loaded the bases, Francoeur stepped up to deliver his second final at-bat, game-winning RBI of the season.
"It was all about the video tonight," Hudson proclaimed to reporters as they gathered around Francoeur.
As he reached first base, Francoeur found himself being mobbed by teammates in the same manner that the video had shown after he led Parkview to a state title in 2002. In the midst of this latest scrum, he received a few fun-loving physical jabs to the ribs from McCann, his long-time, childhood friend.
"There was a bunch of punches, and they were all worth it," Francoeur said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.