Howard blows away Gonzalez, Braves
Phils slugger's windy triple starts rally, homer off closer ends it
ATLANTA -- Still battling the inconsistencies that follow the return from Tommy John elbow ligament surgery, Mike Gonzalez is looking forward to regaining his consistent dominance next year.
As for the Mets, they'd just like to see him regain that dominance any time he faces Ryan Howard and the Phillies over the course of the next two weeks.
Throughout his career, Gonzalez has had Howard's number. But with a game-winning, two-run, eighth-inning homer off the Braves closer at Turner Field on Tuesday night, the powerful first baseman provided the Phillies an 8-7 win and sole possession of first place in the National League East standings.
"It was just poor pitch selection," Gonzalez said of the 3-2 fastball that Howard drilled the opposite way, over the left-field wall to give the Phillies a victory that moved them a half-game ahead of the Mets in the division standings.
Howard's Major League-leading 45th homer of the season handed Gonzalez his second blown save in his past 43 opportunities. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old closer, who came back from Tommy John surgery in June, two of those blown saves have come in the span of exactly one week.
After blowing his first save in more than four years against the Rockies on Sept. 9, Gonzalez converted both of his save opportunities while helping the Braves take two of three games against the Mets this past weekend. But his recent inconsistencies once again appeared after he entered to face Howard with two outs and a runner at first base in the eighth inning.
Throwing nothing but sliders, Gonzalez battled back from a 2-0 disadvantage to work the count full against Howard. The plan was to blow a high fastball past the strong first baseman. But the 93-mph pitch stayed low and the former National League MVP capped his four-hit night by drilling it over the left-field wall.
"It was right in his wheelhouse," said Gonzalez, who had registered three strikeouts while holding Howard hitless in six previous career at-bats against him. "I'm still getting the kinks out. Some nights my slider is filthy. Some nights, it's just so-so. Some nights I can hit 95 [mph] with my fastball. Some nights, I'm just throwing 90-92."
Serving as nothing more than a potential postseason spoiler, the Braves can live with the fact that Gonzalez has posted an 8.73 ERA in his past 14 appearances. As for the first-place Phillies, they aren't in a position where they can afford to see Brad Lidge suffer his first blown save of the season.
But the Braves, who join the Mets as the only teams to score more than one run against Lidge this season, made things interesting after the All-Star closer issued three ninth-inning walks. But after Jeff Francoeur produced an impressive 10-pitch at-bat that resulted in a walk to load the bases, Gregor Blanco struck out to end yet another night when Howard dominated the Braves.
"When he's locked in, he's as good as it gets," McCann said of Howard. The first baseman is hitting .375 (21-for-56) with six homers in 13 games against the Braves, and just .235 against all other Major League teams this year.
Howard, who has batted .347 with 23 homers in 61 career games against the Braves, helped the Phillies start their rally with an RBI triple in a two-run seventh inning. The opposite-field line drive off Will Ohman appeared to be an out until Omar Infante reached the left-field wall and was unable to make a leaping grab.
Cox defended Infante by saying that he believed the wind carried the ball to the wall.
The Phillies' two-run seventh inning cut into the three-run advantage the Braves gained with a four-run sixth that was aided by consecutive walks issued by 45-year-old left-hander Jamie Moyer. When the veteran left-hander exited after allowing a game-tying RBI groundout by Josh Anderson, Kelly Johnson came off the bench to give the Braves a lead with a two-out, two-run, pinch-hit single that extended his hitting streak to a career-best 14 games.
"We had a three-run lead with the right guys coming [out of the bullpen]," Cox said. "That one wind ball really hurt us."
Whether Howard's triple was wind-aided or not, the Braves weren't in good position after James Parr was forced to exit with one out in the fifth inning and facing a 4-3 deficit. Parr had thrown six scoreless innings in both of his previous two career starts this month and he ran his scoreless streak to 14 innings before the Phillies hurt him with a three-run, third inning.
Consecutive doubles by Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley provided the spark, and Jayson Werth capped the three-run third with a two-run homer. Carlos Ruiz, who has hit five of his 13 career homers against the Braves, also hit a solo shot off Parr in the fourth inning.
"It's not like I got beat around," said Parr, who allowed four earned runs and 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings. "Things just didn't go my way tonight."
Nor was it a good night for Gonzalez, whose recent struggles haven't affected the way he's viewed by his teammates.
"Any time Gonzo is on the mound, I feel like we have the advantage," McCann said. "He's the guy we want out there with a lead in the ninth. If I had it to do all over again tonight, I'd have called a different pitch."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.