The Braves came into this game with a potential problem. The bullpen had pitched a lot of innings in Wednesday's doubleheader in Detroit, and given that AJ Smith-Shawver was slated to make just his second career start, there was the potential for a conflagration of sorts on the mound. But, one scare aside, nothing really played out that way. Smith-Shawver notched a key strikeout and shrugged off two solo shots, and then passed the torch to Michael Tonkin, who largely eviscerated the Colorado bats for the remainder of the game. Combined with an offensive onslaught with uncharacteristically few extra-base hits, the Smith-Shawver/Tonkin combo was enough to cruise to an 8-3 win.
The Braves wasted little time in piling up the runs in this one. After Smith-Shawver gave up a solo homer to Elias Diaz to lead off the second, the offense roared back against Kyle Freeland. Sean Murphy led off the second with a single. Matt Olson, hitting fifth (or anywhere but second) for the first time this season, rolled a seeing-eye single to right. Murphy chugged his way to third and made it in safely because the throw hit him, and Olson moved up to second. After Marcell Ozuna popped out, Kevin Pillar smashed a double over third base to give the Braves the lead. But, they weren’t anywhere near done. After Freeland walked two more in the inning, Ozzie Albies came to the dish and hit the ball in more or less the same place as Pillar, just way softer. It was a double either way, though, and this one cleared the bases. Those five runs would be enough to cruise, though the Braves didn’t stop there.
In the fourth, Orlando Arcia drew a one-out wak, moved to third on a Michael Harris II single, and scored on Ronald Acuña Jr.’s sacrifice fly. In the fifth, Murphy smashed a leadoff double into the left-field corner and later scored on a barreled out by Ozuna that went for a sac fly. That seventh run came on the first batter faced by Matt Carasiti, who relieved Freeland after 4 1⁄3 disastrous (1/3 K/BB ratio, woof) innings. The Braves tacked their eighth and final run on when Matt Olson demolished a Pierce Johnson pitch into the Atlanta night:
Probably the funniest thing about that Olson homer is that it came after Johnson blew away both Austin Riley and Murphy on three pitches each.
The pitching slate probably had more intrigue for the Braves in this game, and the Smith-Shawver/Tonkin combo was more than enough. Smith-Shawver gave up the aforementioned dinger to Diaz, and then yielded another solo shot to Ezequiel Tovar to start the fourth. There was a brief moment where it seemed like things would unravel for Smith-Shawver: he walked the nine hitter with one out in the fifth to begin the dreaded third time through, and then gave up an RBI single to Tovar to make it a 6-3 game. Ryan McMahon then lashed a solid single into center, which brought up Diaz as the tying run. As Braves fans, we all probably saw flashes of the dreadful obvious — a game-tying homer by a guy who already had one, coming up for the third time... but Smith-Shawver buckled down and expressed the sentiment of “Not today, 3TTO Satan” with his pitching. Diaz missed a hanging curve on 1-0 (his homer came on an 0-2 hanging slider), fouled off a down-the-pipe fastball on 1-1, got Diaz to chase and barely get a piece of an inside curve on 3-2, and then finally put him away with a changeup of all things. That was the best chance the Rockies had to even the game, but Smith-Shawver prevailed.
Smith-Shawver’s changeup, by the way? Deeeelicious in this one: he threw it eight times, got six swings, and elicited six, count ‘em, six whiffs. He kinda-sorta upped his curveball usage (20 percent in this one) and got whiffs on 40 percent of swings on it, which paired well with a similar whiff rate on the slider. He might still be a bit too fastball-heavy because he feels like he can’t throw the slider for strikes, but he actually can, so that’ll be an interesting evolution to watch going forward.
Despite the fifth-inning drama, and largely owing to coming off a doubleheader, the Braves elected to have Smith-Shawver start the sixth, and he did fine, striking out Nolan Jones and then ending his night with an easy groundout to short. His final line ended up being a mixed bag — two homers bad, 6/1 K/BB ratio good — but he really didn’t get hit all that hard aside from the homers and showed a lot more to build on than his first-ever start. I gotta stop before I rave about the changeup again.
Speaking of raving, though: Michael Tonkin! The only guy in the bullpen to not see time during the doubleheader, aside from the just-called-up Ben Heller, Tonkin absolutely crushed it in this one. After some sort of issue that saw him start the game with a walk and throw balls in six of his first seven offerings, he then devoured Elehuris Montero’s soul with two nasty sliders, and then just straight rolled. He had two strikeouts in a perfect seventh, another with two groundouts in a perfect eighth, and then collected two more in the ninth, including one to end the game. My friends, we’re talking a 6/1 K/BB ratio in 3 1⁄3 innings of work. finally an even sinker-slider mix, and whiffs on half the swings batters took against him. Look, the Rockies are not a good offensive team by any stretch, they’re quite putrid, but still, have some mercy, Mr. Tonkin. Way to take a potential predicament and turn it into sheer awesomeness.
Anyway, this one was all Braves. Ozzie Albies and Sean Murphy each had three hits. The Braves got outhomered 2-1, but still out-barreled the Rockies, 3-2. Riley even made multiple nice defensive plays on balls hit to his right down the line, including one that took a hit away the type of 50-50 grounder he tends to struggle with, and more importantly, wasn’t even planted on the line for either of them.
The series continues tomorrow and through the weekend.