It’s not often that a player’s first home run of the season comes in August, and it’s probably even less often that said first home run is of the pinch-hit variety. But that’s exactly what happened with former Brave Tommy La Stella on Thursday night, as his pinch-hit home run sunk the Braves, giving them a season series split with the Cubs at three games apiece.
The early game did not fare well for the home team. Mike Foltynewicz did have an easy 1-2-3 first, but the Braves were also held scoreless by Chicago starter Mike Montgomery in the bottom of the inning, as Ronald Acuña was picked off and thrown out on a steal attempt after a leadoff single. (As a team, the Braves have now fully crossed into marginally-below-average territory in terms of their stolen base attempts and successes, so they should really rethink their whole strategy there down the stretch.) In the second, all sorts of nonsense and misfortune befell Foltynewicz. First, he allowed a leadoff double to Ben Zobrist on a grounder that hugged the right-field line. Then, he hit Jason Heyward with a pitch that Heyward essentially swung at, putting runners on first and second. A mild twitch during his set-up was called for a balk, and a Willson Contreras groundout to second scored the first Chicago run. The Braves then brought the infield in and Foltynewicz elicited the desired grounder from Kyle Schwarber, but Ozzie Albies bounced his throw in front of the plate, gifting the Cubs their second run. Foltynewicz then gave up an 0-2 single to Montgomery, but retired the next two hitters to keep the deficit at two.
The third inning was also unfun. Foltynewicz issued an uncharacteristic four-pitch, one-out walk to Anthony Rizzo; Rizzo moved to third as Zobrist pulled another pitch into right field for a single. The Braves’ right-hander battled back to get a pop-out from Heyward to give himself a chance to keep that third run from scoring, but then Contreras hit a grounder down the third-base line for a double. After an intentional walk to Schwarber, Foltynewicz struck out Montgomery to end the third inning down 3-0.
The Braves got that one run back in the bottom of the frame, as Montgomery faded somewhat when facing the Atlanta lineup a second time. Acuña notched a two-out single and advanced to second when Johan Camargo was hit by a pitch. Freddie Freeman then singled on a grounder to right center, scoring Acuña. Unfortunately, a grounder in more or less the same place from Nick Markakis was hit much softer than Freeman’s, and turned into the third out.
The teams exchanged scoreless fourth innings, as Foltynewicz had another 1-2-3 frame, and the Braves wasted a leadoff double from Kurt Suzuki by striking out thrice afterwards. Foltynewicz notched another three-up, three-down frame in the fifth, which set up a neat Braves rally. First, Acuña hit another single, his third knock in three tries. Then, Johan Camargo fought off a fastball at his eyes and dumped it down the right-field line for a single. With runners at the corners, Freddie Freeman lifted a first-pitch fastball into left-center. Heyward, in center field for the Cubs tonight, raced over and made an ill-advised dive that did not come close to flagging the ball down. It rolled to the wall, both runners scored, and Freeman ended up at third with a triple. Heyward ended up leaving the game after being shaken up on the dive. Nick Markakis hit another grounder that failed to score the go-ahead run, but Kurt Suzuki bailed him out by blasting a deep liner off newly-entered Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler that let Freeman tag up and score uncontested. The Braves had a 4-3 lead now, but it didn’t last long.
In fact, that lead held for only a handful of batters. Foltynewicz retired his first man of the sixth, but Kyle Schwarber singled. The Cubs then inserted former Brave Tommy LaStella into the game as a pinch-hitter, and La Stella, he of the 78 wRC+, zero home runs, 0.0 fWAR, and .325 xwOBA this season, drilled a letter-high 1-1 fastball into right field for a no-doubt, go-ahead, backbreaking home run.
After that, the Chicago bullpen took over and more or less manhandled the Braves. Jesse Chavez handled the bottom of the sixth and faced no issues. The inning’s third out was made by newly-acquired Lucas Duda, who drove the second pitch he saw in a Braves uniform deep into right center, where it was flagged down by Albert Almora Jr. (inserted as the center fielder after Heyward left the game) via sliding catch. Had Duda pulled that ball a lot more, the Braves could have tied the game, but no such luck.
The Braves chased Chavez after Johan Camargo hit a one-out single back up the box in the seventh, but LOOGY Justin Wilson came on and LOOGYed Freeman and Markakis, getting the former to fly out weakly and striking out the latter. Carl Edwards Jr. worked a scoreless eighth, and in the ninth, Pedro Strop elicited three nuggets of weak contact to shortstop Javy Baez to end the game.
Toiling in semi-obscurity but not forgotten was the Atlanta relief corps in this game. Dan Winkler came on in relief of Foltynewicz in the seventh and, despite having to face lefty bat Anthony Rizzo and the switch-hitting Zobrist, retired all five of the batters he faced. He then gave way to Jonny Venters, who went four-up, four-down to close out Atlanta’s side of the pitching ledger.
With the defeat, the Braves’ division lead falls to three games. The Cubs now head to Philadelphia where they will hopefully help the Braves maintain or extend that lead; the Braves remain at home to taken on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The top of the Atlanta order collected seven hits in this one, but it wasn’t enough, especially since none of them left the yard. The Braves collected nine hits and a walk while their pitchers yielded just six hits and two walks, but the La Stella blast could not be overcome. Foltynewicz (six frames, five runs, four earned runs, five strikeouts, two walks) outlasted Montgomery (four and a third innings, four runs, one walk, six strikeouts), but that, too, was not enough. Get ‘em tomorrow, I guess.