Braves rally, move up in Wild Card race
Infante's clutch triple backs Kawakami's impressive start
MIAMI -- It's seemingly time to recognize that Kenshin Kawakami is more than capable of serving as a dependable Major League starter. Whenever there's been reason to question his talents or durability, the Japanese hurler has displayed his competitive edge and proven that he could be an asset to the Braves as they attempt to reach the postseason.
Sitting on the frustrating end of Josh Johnson's early dominance at Land Shark Stadium on Monday night, Kawakami held steady and put the Braves in position to produce a flurry of two-out seventh-inning magic that carried them to a 5-2 win over the Marlins.
"He's a great competitor," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I noticed that right away during Spring Training. He competes like crazy and his stuff is good. He fits in a Major League rotation."
During six solid innings against a Marlins lineup that pounded him during two previous starts this season, Kawakami allowed just one run and six hits. But his most influential contribution might have been the 10-pitch, sixth-inning at-bat that he produced while Johnson was still bidding for a no-hitter.
After Kawakami fouled off five pitches and then accounted for the second out of the sixth with a groundout, Johnson was unable to escape the inning before Matt Diaz erased his no-hit bid with a single up the middle. Diaz, who has 20 hits in his past 36 at-bats, hit a Major League-best .404 in August.
"It looked like [Kawakami's at-bat] took a little bit of something out of him," Chipper Jones said. "Any 10- or 11-pitch at-bat has a tendency to wear on a pitcher, especially when it's that late in the game."
Jones began the seventh with an opposite-field single and waited through two batters before Johnson surrendered three consecutive two-out hits. Yunel Escobar's single put runners at the corners and set the stage for the two-run triple recorded by Omar Infante, who would then score what proved to be the decisive run on David Ross' RBI single.
"You make one mistake the whole day and end up giving up three runs," said Johnson in reference to the misplaced fastball that Infante directed into the left-center-field gap. "You can end up making a bunch of mistakes, and end up giving up none. That's just baseball."
|"It's a huge win, probably the biggest win of the year, especially sitting back and seeing how the first six innings went. To come back, come off the mat and put up enough runs to win and then some off of [Johnson] is a tremendous boost for us."|
|-- Chipper Jones|
The three-run seventh doomed Johnson, who was charged with three runs and five hits in 6 2/3 innings, and made a winner out of Kawakami, who didn't learn that he'd be making this start until early Sunday evening.
Before multiple injuries complicated some roster decisions, the Braves had planned to skip Kawakami's turn. The 34-year-old Japanese hurler, who has battled shoulder fatigue during his first season in the United States, aided this decision last Wednesday, when he struggled through the sixth inning against the Padres.
While Kawakami admitted he would have appreciated more notice about this change in plans, he said the club's position in the postseason race led to him quickly accept the assignment to reassume his regular slot in the rotation and allow Tim Hudson to make his long-awaited return on Tuesday.
"We can't afford to lose right now," said Kawakami through his interpreter.
While conquering Johnson just two days after they had ended Cliff Lee's National League dominance, the Braves moved to within three games of the Wild Card lead and pushed themselves one game ahead of the Marlins.
"It's a huge win, probably the biggest win of the year, especially sitting back and seeing how the first six innings went," Jones said. "To come back, come off the mat and put up enough runs to win and then some off of [Johnson] is a tremendous boost for us."
Kawakami, who has now won matchups against Johnson, Roy Halladay and Daisuke Matsuzaka, minimized some potential early damage with the assistance of two double-play groundouts. Kawakami surrendered each of his six hits through the first four innings and was solely damaged during by Dan Uggla's second-inning sacrifice fly.
"After giving up that one run, I just couldn't give up any more runs with how [Johnson] was pitching early in the game," Kawakami said.
Kawakami's determination also proved fruitful during his key sixth-inning at-bat. While allowing six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Marlins on July 29, Kawakami had surrendered a three-run homer to Johnson, who bruised the rookie hurler again Monday with a third-inning single.
"I gave up another hit to him today, so I just wanted to hang in there," Kawakami said with a smile. "[In my] last outing, I faced him and I gave up a home run to him, so I really wanted to win tonight."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.