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Bullpen bends but doesn’t break as Braves beat Marlins, 5-4

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The relief corps hurled three stressful but scoreless frames as two homers led the way to victory.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

You can all exhale, at least momentarily: the Braves bullpen hurled three scoreless innings as the Braves edged the Marlins 5-4 to split their four-game set in Miami. Those three innings were far from clean, and Luke Jackson experienced The Luke Jackson Experience when closing out the game in the ninth, but all’s well (in the standings) that ends well, and a routine fly out by Harold Ramirez is what ended well for the Braves in this one.

The pitching matchup for this game featured a couple of righties making their second starts — Hector Noesi, for the Marlins, making his second start since 2015; Mike Foltynewicz, for the Braves, making his second start since being recalled from Triple-A. Both starters had first innings they’d regret. Noesi allowed the first three batters to reach via single, walk, dunked Freddie Freeman single into left field, and the Braves were on the board. Unfortunately, that was all they got, as Noesi struck out the next two batters and Ozzie Albies was picked off on a snap throw back to second base on a weird I’m-stealing-wait-I’m-not-oh-crap play. Mike Foltynewicz started his inning with a one-run lead but would leave it with a two-run deficit. A leadoff walk and a perfectly-placed bunt single threatened, but Foltynewicz seemed like he might escape thanks to a first-pitch pop-out and a strikeout. But, no dice: Starlin Castro fought off a pitch into right field that scored a run, and then Harold Ramirez destroyed a hanging first-pitch slider down the left-field line for a two-run double. Even the third out of the inning was hard-hit (111 mph) but luckily right at Ozzie Albies for a groundout.

After that, though, Noesi and Foltynewicz traded zeroes. Noesi struck out the first two batters in the second, giving him a span of four consecutive strikeouts. Foltynewicz issued a leadoff walk in a second consecutive inning, as well as a two-out single in the third, but allowed no further runs across the plate.

That set up the Braves to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. In the fourth, Noesi walked both Freeman and Josh Donaldson to start the frame, but them bamboozled a clearly-guessing Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson, getting each to sit down by way of backwards K in the scorebook. I don’t know if Ender Inciarte was also guessing or just reacting, but if he was guessing, he guessed right: Inciarte drilled an 0-1 Noesi pitch into right field for a towering three-run homer, and just like that, the Braves were up 4-3. After another scoreless frame by Foltynewicz, Ronald Acuña Jr. added an emphatic fifth run to the Braves’ total with a monster home run on a 3-0 count. Foltynewicz would strand a two-out double in the bottom of the inning, and Noesi worked a scoreless sixth. That was the calm before the storm — the rest of the game was drama, drama, drama.

Up to that point, Foltynewicz had been pretty solid despite a fairly ineffective slider. He allowed a few scares (Garrett Cooper hit a near-homer but to dead center, Jon Berti hit what could have been a cheap homer into the right-field corner that didn’t quite get past the fence), but didn’t walk anyone in the third, fourth, or fifth, and tallied seven strikeouts in five innings of work. All that was nearly for naught, though, as Foltynewicz started off his sixth in terrifying fashion.

Starlin Castro led off the frame with a deep drive into center field that banged off the wall. Initially ruled a homer, the Braves challenged and got it reversed. But, Castro would end up scoring anyway, as a groundout pushed him to third and Jorge Alfaro got a lucky break — his soft tapper back to the mound was hit poorly enough to allow Castro to score, and Alfaro reached when Foltynewicz’ throw to first was off target. Lewis Brinson then singled, pushing the tying run to second and prompting a visit to the mound from Brian Snitker.

It was decision time — pull Foltynewicz in lieu of the recently-very-ineffective bullpen, or let him continue. I don’t know what was said at the mound conference, but the result was that Foltynewicz remained in the game. It worked out: pinch-hitter Martin Prado hit a soft fly out to right, and Berti hit into a routine groundout. The Braves still had the lead. But they had three more innings to play.

The Braves tossed away a golden scoring opportunity in the second, as Jarlin Garcia came on and allowed his first two men to reach via single and walk, respectively. The Braves then sent Adam Duvall up to pinch-hit and asked him to bunt (why?) against new reliever Tyler Kinley, and Duvall popped up his first bunt attempt for the first out of the frame. Kinley would later throw a wild pitch that had the same effect as a bunt, but it didnt end up hurting his cause — Acuña grounded out back to the mound, and Albies hit a hard grounder right at the second baseman. So, the bullpen had to hold the slimmest of leads. Chris Martin came on, and was up to the task. He struck out two in his scoreless frame; a two-out single off the bat of Garrett Cooper was a routine roller out of the reach of Johan Camargo at shortstop.

A leadoff walk in the eighth by Freddie Freeman against Kinley went for naught, as Camargo hit into an inning-ending double play. It was then Sean Newcomb time, with the same mission — keep Miami off the board. At first, things went really well, as Newcomb struck out the first two batters he faced. But then, he issued a walk to the struggling Brinson, and then another walk to left-handed pinch-hitter Curtis Granderson. Yikes. With Berti due up, Newcomb was removed, and Anthony Swarzak was inserted. Three pitches later, and the Braves survived another threat, as Berti grounded out once again in a key situation.

Jose Quijada had a very 2019 inning in the top of the ninth: three strikeouts around one walk. The walk was to Inciarte, who finished his day 2-for-3 with a walk, a stolen base, and the big blow in the game; one of the strikeouts was Charlie Culberson, who finished his day 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, two of them three-pitch affairs and one of them totaling only four pitches.

And then, it was time for The Luke Jackson Experience in the ninth, featuring the Shenanigans Backing Band.

  • First up: Isan Diaz. Weakly-hit fly ball into right field, across the Braves’ shading towards right-center. Hit probability: four percent. It dropped in. Of course it did. But wait! A break! Diaz wandered too far off first, and Acuña’s strong, accurate throw back to Freeman nabbed him. Phew.
  • Second up: Brian Anderson. The hardest-hit ball Jackson would allow in this inning, at a whopping 91 mph. Routine groundout to short, 24 percent hit probability. Phew.
  • Third up: Garrett Cooper. 84 mph grounder, fielded by a ranging Camargo who threw off-balance and not in time (the ball bounced out of Freeman’s glove anyway). A single, on an 11 percent hit probability ball.
  • Fourth up: Starlin Castro. His contact had a high hit probability (60 percent), but was an 83 mph liner just out of the reach of Ozzie Albies. The tying run was now on third base.
  • Fifth up: Harold Ramirez, whose two-run double was the big blow for the Marlins so far in this game. But, you know how this ends — Ramirez flew out to center, a can of corn with a hit probability of seven percent.

The Braves collected their 70th win of the year. They keep pace with the Nationals, who beat the Mets 7-4 in their contest today to snap New York’s winning streak. The Braves are off on Monday before welcoming these very same Mets to town. Stay tuned.