Over a six-month season, one game doesn’t mean a lot. (There’s your disclaimer.) That said, one game in May counts just as much – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – as a game in September, and the Atlanta Braves won the sort of game Wednesday night that wouldn’t have been out of place in a pennant race, which could well be forthcoming.
A night after blowing a ninth-inning lead to the Cubs, the Braves held their nerve in both halves of the eighth and beat the team many believe will be the National League’s best. (More about that in a bit.) The 4-1 victory was yet another indication – we’ve already been served a slew of indications, and we’re not yet at Memorial Day – that the Baby Braves are growing up in public. They could keep winning for a good long while.
To the eighth. With the score tied at 1-1, Kris Bryant led off with a single to left against Shane Carle, who was lifted for the lefty A.J. Minter, who fell behind the lefty swinger Anthony Rizzo. Here the game changed. Swinging 3-0, Rizzo – who used to be fearsome, but now is below the Mendoza Line – popped to third. In sum, a terrible piece of hitting.
Willson Contreras followed with a single to center, pushing Bryant into scoring position. Up stepped Javier Baez, who’s an older (but not necessarily better) version of Ozzie Albies. Baez swings hard at everything – he leads the Cubs with 10 homers and 36 RBIs – and almost never walks. Here he struck out for the third time on the night. Then Kyle Schwarber, who already had struck out twice and hit into a double play, grounded to second.
With one out in the bottom of the inning, Albies – who doubled off the fence leading off the first – drove a pitch from Carl Edwards Jr. into the gap in right-center. When Albies stopped running, he was on third base. The Cubs’ infielders pinched toward the plate. Edwards’ first pitch to Ronald Acuna was a 95-mph four-seamer, which the rookie took for a ball. The second was an 80-mph curve, which Acuna smashed smashed into left field. The Braves had the lead. As he exited the batter’s box, the 20-year-old applauded himself, and why not?
Facing the usual shift, Freddie Freeman topped a ball to the unmanned left side that rolled for a while, which can happen when you wrong-foot a shift. The Braves had men on second and third. Both would score on bases-loaded walks. A tight game was tight no more. The Baby Braves had executed in a way the Cubs, who’ve made the playoffs three years running, could not.
Arodys Vizcaino, who blew a save Tuesday, worked a 1-2-3 ninth. The team with the league’s best record remained the team with the league’s best record. And here we ask: If you knew nothing about these teams’ immediate pasts, would anything that happened Wednesday make you believe the Braves are in any way inferior to the Cubs?
Coming off two terrible starts, Brandon McCarthy worked six laudable innings, striking out eight and yielding one earned run. (Bryant drove it in. He was the only Cub managing good swings.) The Braves didn’t do much after the first against Tyler Chatwood, but he was gone after 5-1/3 innings and his relief finally buckled.
The Braves struck out five times against five Cubs pitchers. The Cubs struck out 11 times against four Braves. Albies, Acuna and Freeman had six of their team’s seven hits, and you’ll not find many -- maybe not any -- teams with a more talented top of the order. The Braves are 3-2 against this opponent, and they’re not far from being 5-0. (We reference both Tuesday night and the blown eight-run lead that blustery Saturday at Wrigley.)
We’ve been saying this for a while, but here it is again: These guys can play with anybody. They’re worked 42 games and hold the NL’s best record. They went to Florida last week and won five of six. They’ve played the Cubs three times this week home and away, and they’re 2-1. With every week, they nudge us closer to a giddy realization: These Braves might really be as good as they look.