In the penultimate game of the Braves season, Aaron Blair finally showed a large and enthusiastic home crowd exactly why he was such a highly regarded prospect, and Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis supplied the power element that’s been a significant part of Atlanta’s second-half offensive resurgence.
Freeman and Markakis homered and Blair pitched the best game of his difficult rookie season, striking out a career-high 10 batters while walking one in six-plus innings of a 5-3 Braves win at Turner Field, where 40,124 turned out for the next-to-last game before the joint is closed for baseball and the home team moves to Cobb County.
Freeman’s two-run homer in the fourth inning gave the Braves a 2-1 lead and Markakis added a solo homer in the sixth for the Braves, who’ve won 11 of 13 games and 23 of 37 to equal their 2015 wins total (67).
Blair (2-7) had been 1-4 with a 9.00 ERA and 12 homers allowed in 37 innings over his past eight starts before Saturday, when suddenly he looked like the guy who was a consensus top-60 prospect in all of baseball before the season.
“It’s a good way to go out, shows a lot of the work I did here over the past month or so,” said the big right-hander, who had a devastating breaking ball Saturday and allowed just four hits and two runs, leaving the game after Justin Upton’s leadoff homer in the seventh cut the lead to 3-2.
“Whew, that was fun to watch,” Freeman said. “That was the kind of stuff we heard he had when we traded for him. It was nice to see it in his last start of the year.”
Blair struck out five of the first six and seven of 14 through four innings, including two strikeouts in the first and fourth innings and a perfect three-strikeout second inning.
“It was like, wow, something’s happening really good right here,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said. “And he just kept it up. He did a great job…. That’s got to be an unbelievable confidence boost for him. I’m really happy for him because he’s put a lot of work into this year. Hasn’t went probably the way he wanted it to go, but that right there is something that’s pretty good to end his year on.”
After the Tigers got within a run in the seventh on Upton’s homer, rookies Dansby Swanson and Mallex Smith triggered a two-run Braves seventh when Swanson hit a leadoff single and Smith followed with a pinch-hit bunt single.
After an Ender Inciarte sacrifice bunt, Adonis Garcia’s two-run single scored Swanson and Smith for a 5-2 lead.
The Tigers threatened by loading the bases in the eighth against Mauricio Cabrera, who gave up a single and two walks without retiring a batter. That brought up Miguel Cabrera, arguably baseball’s best hitter. Enter reliever Chaz Roe, one of the Braves’ most impactful midseason pickups.
“That’s the situation you want to be in,” Roe said, “bases loaded and no outs, just come in and try to get the job done, throw strikes.”
He got the job done. Man, did he ever. He struck out Cabreram, then induced an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play that was started by a sensational diving stop by shortstop Swanson, who drew thunderous applause as he left the field.
“Chaz comes in and you hope maybe he can get (Cabrera) to maybe get anxious and roll one over and we give up one run,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said. “Bases loaded with nobody out, you figure if you get out of there with one run that’s pretty good. What he did was just phenomenal. And he’s been doing it the whole time we’ve had him.”
Freeman said, “When you’ve got Miggy coming up with bases loaded and no outs, you know you’re in a tough spot. But Chaz Roe did a heck of a job. It was a playoff-atmosphere game and a lot of young guys stepped up for us today, and that’s great to see. That play Dansby made, that’s an Andrelton-type play right there. So that’s big praise for him.”
Roe added, “(Swanson) is unbelievable. I was just talking to Chase (d’Arnaud), he said about a year-and-half-ago he’s in college. Now he’s out here doing this. He’s a fun player to watch.”
After hitting just 27 home runs in 64 games during their awful 18-46 start to the season, the Braves have hit 95 homers while going 49-47 in the past 96 games.
Freeman’s 34th homer was one of his more impressive drives, considering the location of the full-count pitch: it was about a half-foot below the bottom of the strike zone.
Daren Willman, director of baseball research and development for MLB.com, said on Twitter that the pitch was only about 16 inches off the ground and the lowest pitch that Freeman ever hit for a homer.
It gave the Braves a 2-1 lead and gave Freeman 83 extra-base hits, four shy of Chipper Jones’ Atlanta franchise-record 87 extra-base hits in Jones’ 1999 National League MVP season.