Chipper comes through in a pinch
Win brings Braves to within half-game of NL East lead
ATLANTA -- As Braves manager Bobby Cox nears his retirement, his players are showing a sense of resiliency that has put them in a position that seemed unimaginable just two weeks ago.
When the slumping Phillies limp into Atlanta to begin a three-game series on Monday afternoon, they'll be matching up against a rejuvenated Braves club that saw Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward highlight a three-run eighth inning that enabled them to complete a three-game sweep with Sunday's afternoon's 5-2 win over the Pirates.
"It's not often that you leave as many runners on as we did today and you come out with a win," Jones said. "We left the bases loaded a couple times with less than two outs. Against good ballclubs, that will come back to bite you. But we were resilient enough today to get the win."
Jones' looping, opposite-field, two-out single off Pirates right-handed reliever Joel Hanrahan gave the Braves an eighth-inning lead that would increase when Heyward followed by directing left-handed reliever Javier Lopez's 0-2 sidearm-delivery offering into the left-center-field gap for a two-run triple. Once Billy Wagner completed a perfect ninth, Cox's club found itself celebrating its ninth last-at-bat victory of the season.
"When you're near the top of the division, you better have some of those," Cox said. "Most teams at the top of their division are winning games like that."
With their 15th win in the past 19 games, the Braves moved to within one-half game of the Phillies, who have scored a total of seven runs while losing six of their past eight games. This is a position that seemed unrealistic on April 29, when the Braves lost a ninth consecutive game, or as recently as May 17, when they were 6 1/2 games out of first place.
"We go through a nine-game losing streak and everybody is saying we're going to be 10, 15, 20 games out late in the season," Jones said. "Then, lo and behold, the Phillies go through a streak similar to the one we were going through in April. It happens. It's just like when you're hitting rocket shots at people and they're getting caught, and eventually you're going to hit a couple jam jobs that fall in that help you win a game."
While delivering this final sentence with a smile, Jones was referencing his ability to fist Hanrahan's 97-mph, 0-1 fastball just beyond the reach of Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeno. The looping game-winner easily scored Nate McLouth, who drew a one-out walk off Hanrahan and then stole second base before Brian McCann came off the bench to draw a walk before Martin Prado soured his 22nd mulithit performance of the season with a strikeout.
Jones, who has hit .297 (11-for-37) in his past 11 games, allowed Prado to forget about his final at-bat of the afternoon, and Heyward delivered the triple that essentially forced the Pirates to forget about the possibility of claiming a late-inning win against the Braves on consecutive Sundays. Atlanta's 20-year-old right fielder drew praise from his teammates for his ability to quickly adjust to Lopez's sidearm delivery on an 0-2 pitch.
"We're comfortable as a team throughout the whole game, even moreso in the last at-bats," Heyward said. "We seem like a very patient team. I don't think anybody gives any at-bats away."
Unfortunately for Kenshin Kawakami, the Braves squandered a couple of early scoring opportunities and forced him to exit this latest outing with the reality that he remains winless through his first 10 starts of the season. Kawakami was in line to record the victory until Jeff Clement drilled a game-tying, two-run homer into the right-center-field seats with nobody out in the seventh inning.
Moments before, Garrett Jones had reached with a leadoff walk after the Braves thought they had struck him out on a 1-2 curveball. Third-base umpire Chris Guccione quickly ruled that Jones fouled the pitch into the dirt before it landed in catcher David Ross' mitt.
This ruling, which drew a brief on-field argument from Cox, added to the growing misfortunes of Kawakami, who has posted a 2.41 ERA in his past three outings. The 34-year-old right-hander's sanity has been preserved by the fact that the Braves have won at least won three of the past four games he started. They lost each of his first six outings.
"To be honest, today I'm happy he didn't get the loss," Heyward said. "That's the biggest thing. That game could have gotten out of hand. They had a big home run after a misread [call], or what have you. It would have been easy for anybody to lay down right there."
Troy Glaus, who entered the game with a National League-leading 23 RBIs in May, accounted for both runs that were scored while Kawakami was pitching. The Braves' first baseman delivered a first-inning sacrifice fly and then hit his seventh homer of the season with two outs in the third inning off Pirates starter Paul Maholm.
McLouth, who has just two hits in his past 28 at-bats, helped kill the scoring opportunities the Braves squandered after loading the bases in two of the first three innings. The former Pirates outfielder struck out with the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning, and then ended the third inning with a lazy fly ball to right field.
But with Yunel Escobar producing his first three-hit game since Sept. 10, and Jones coming off the bench to aid another last-at-bat victory, the Braves could ignore the fact that they stranded 12 runners in this series finale and instead carry momentum into Monday's series opener against the Phillies.
"We've still got 100-plus games left," Jones said. "We're playing well. They're struggling a little bit. Let's just go out there and have fun."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.