The Atlanta Braves moved a step closer to clinching a fourth straight division crown Tuesday with a huge 2-1 win over Zack Wheeler and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves now have a 3.5 game advantage in the NL East and their magic number is down to three.
Atlanta got a big time performance from Charlie Morton who allowed three hits, two walks and struck out 10 over seven scoreless innings. It was the 19th time in his career that he has reached double-digit strikeouts in a game and was the 20th time where he has thrown at least seven shutout innings. His track record of big game performances was a huge factor in Atlanta signing him and then extending him through at least next season.
“That’s exactly why we hired him. The moment doesn’t get too big for him, Brian Snitker said of Morton’s performance. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. It’s just about making the next pitch.”
Morton found himself in trouble quickly early on when Odubel Herrera and Jean Segura lead off the game with back-to-back singles. That would bring the red hot Bryce Harper to the plate but Morton got him to roll over a ball to short for a force out. Morton struck out J.T. Realmuto and got Brad Miller to ground out to Ozzie Albies at second to escape the jam.
“After we got Bryce out, I thought we were still alright,” Morton said. “Getting through that inning, that was big because of those two leadoff hits. That’s tough having guys on first and second with no outs against the team like that, but we got through it.”
Morton locked in from there and retired the next 11 hitters he faced before issuing back-to-back walks in the fourth. He struck out Didi Gregorius to strand both of those runners. He retired the last seven men he faced, striking out Freddy Galvis on his 101st pitch of the evening to end the seventh.
“I really think that the four seam fastball tonight was the difference maker because I had just enough life on it to get away with some pitches that were not in great locations,” Morton said.
Wheeler matched Morton pitch-for-pitch except for the third inning where the Braves were able to cash in an opportunity. Travis d’Arnaud jumped on an inside fastball for a leadoff double. Dansby Swanson followed with a single to right to put runners at the corners with no one out. Swanson moved up to second on a sacrifice bunt by Morton and both runners came in to score on a line drive by Jorge Soler to left.
“Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I just have to make the most of it,” Soler said of his two-run single in the third. “Sometimes it goes your way, and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s just how it is.”
Soler went 1-for-3 with a walk in the game and is now 5-for-13 with two runs scored and six RBI in his last three.
“This guy’s been really good the whole time we’ve had him,” Snitker said of Soler. The at-bats, the walk he took today, he doesn’t expand. It’s not a short sample anymore. He’s been doing this ever since he’s been here. He’s been just so good for us.”
Atlanta carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth but it was again a rocky road for Will Smith. Smith’s troubles began with a leadoff walk to Harper. No doubt he was trying to be careful there but the early baserunner would lead to plenty of stress as the inning continued. Smith has now walked six batters over his last three appearances.
J.T. Realmuto lined out on a nice running grab by Guillermo Heredia in center for the first out. Heredia had just entered the game for defensive purposes with Adam Duvall shifting over to right. Things got dicey from there as pinch-hitter Matt Vierling lifted a fly ball to left that bounced off Eddie Rosario’s glove in left for an error to put runners at second and third. The Braves elected to intentionally walk Andrew McCutchen to set up a force play at any base. Didi Gregorius then lifted a sacrifice fly to Duvall in right that accounted for Philadelphia’s only run. Smith then ran the count to 3-2 against Freddy Galvis before striking him out with a 93 mph fastball.
That was Smith’s 36th save of the season which is third in the majors behind Mark Melancon and Liam Hendriks. However, his performance hasn’t been inspiring as he often seems to be walking the tightrope. Still, he continues to have the support of his manager.
“Will’s done awesome. This guy has done nothing but answer the phone and deliver,” Snitker said of his closer. “I can’t see anything but positive in what Will is doing. The guy takes the ball, he pitches, he throws every day. His stuff was probably as good today as it has been the last four days he’s thrown.”
Realmuto’s fly ball had an exit velocity of 99.3 MPH. Vierling’s ball that Rosario booted came off the bat at 105.7 mph. Gregorius’ sac fly was to the warning track and had an exit velocity of 100.2 mph.
To be fair, that play in left has to be made and Smith would have gotten out of the inning without allowing a run. Still, the amount of baserunners that Smith has been dealing with is a troubling trend.
Despite the ninth inning drama, the Braves did what they needed to do. They scored a big win in a playoff atmosphere. Scoring a victory in the opener, against Wheeler no less, has to be a huge lift.
“We’ve got five games to play, so they’re all huge,” Snitker said of the series. “The first win of a big series like this, getting that win in the first game is big.”
“You can feel it in the stadium, in the clubhouse, the guys can taste it a little bit,” Morton said of the playoff atmosphere. “Hopefully it ends in a little celebration here and we can look back at the season that we were grinding through for basically four months and be really proud of what we did.”