The Braves were somehow unable to solve Cardinals starter Wade Leblanc on Thursday, but more than atoned for it against the St. Louis bullpen. Atlanta scored six runs in the eighth inning, aided by five consecutive two-out walks, that allowed the Braves to take a commanding lead and eventually hold on for an 8-4 win.
Touki Toussaint drew the start for Atlanta and while he was anything but sharp, he managed to work into the sixth inning while allowing three runs (two earned). Toussaint finished with just three strikeouts, but worked around trouble in multiple innings and kept the Braves within striking distance.
The Braves struck first on a Freddie Freeman RBI single in the third inning, but the lead quickly evaporated as Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner blasted a game-tying homer to left field in the bottom-half of the frame. Nolan Arenado added an RBI single later in the inning to push St. Louis ahead 2-1 against Toussaint. Again, that advantage was short-lived as Joc Pederson tied the game in the fourth inning with a solo homer to right-center.
The game remained tied until the sixth inning, when a one-out single by Tyler O’Neill chased Toussaint from the game. Jesse Chavez entered in relief and promptly allowed a single to Matt Carpenter, which put two runners on base. Harrison Bader flew out to right field to advance O’Neill to third, which became a huge play in the game as O’Neill scored during the next at-bat on a Kevan Smith passed ball, giving the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.
Meanwhile, LeBlanc retired eight consecutive Braves hitters following the Pederson homer. The left-hander sat in the mid-to-upper 80’s with his fastball, but kept Atlanta hitters off-balance and left the game with a 3-2 lead. Genesis Cabrera relieved LeBlanc in the seventh and worked around a leadoff HBP that put Pederson on base. He was erased on a failed steal attempt after Kevan Smith was unable to sacrifice bunt, then Smith and Guillermo Heredia were erased to mitigate the threat. The Cardinals would plate another run in the bottom-half on a Paul Goldschmidt RBI single, which pushed their advantage to 4-2.
The eighth inning was among the craziest you will ever see in a major league baseball game, especially given the situation. Giovanny Gallegos entered the game and quickly retired the first two batters for Atlanta albeit on two absolute rockets with xBA of .540 and .930 off the bats of Albies and Soler, respectively. Freddie Freeman then lined a two-out single to left field to bring the tying run to the plate. Austin Riley delivered in dramatic fashion, hammering a slider down the left field line, just inside the pole, to tie the score at 4-4.
This blast gave Riley his 23rd homer of the season and continued an absolutely torrid stretch for the young third baseman. Dansby Swanson followed with a double off the right field wall, which marked the end of the night for Gallegos, who exited in favor of closer Alex Reyes. The Cardinals relief ace has been lauded for his outstanding work this season, but his underlying stats were very troubling entering play tonight. The right-hander owned a 1.85 ERA, but his 4.79 xFIP, 86.6% strand rate, and .213 BABIP all spelled out the potential for ugly negative regression. All those concerns came to fruition, to the benefit of the Atlanta offense.
Reyes hit the first batter he faced, Adam Duvall, then promptly walked the next four batters, which plated three runs for the Braves to give them a 7-4 lead. Justin Miller entered to stop the bleeding, but he walked Soler to push the lead to 8-4 and give Atlanta five consecutive walks. All of this damage came with two outs and the bases empty, which has to be unnerving for the Cardinals in retrospect.
The Atlanta bullpen held the Cardinals quiet in the eighth and ninth, shutting the door on the game and completing a three-game sweep for the Braves. This win pushes them past the .500 mark for the first time all season, which seems impossible given the talent on the roster. Nevertheless, the Braves exit St. Louis with some momentum and now trail the Mets by only 1.5 games in the NL East.
The Braves now head to Washington with an eye toward narrowing the gap even more, but will need to bring this same intensity against a division rival who will aim to play spoiler. Having a potent Atlanta lineup feels great and hopefully this newly-minted patient approach throughout the lineup can carry into the weekend. Either way, the Braves finally have a winning record!