On the final day of the season, one of Braves Country’s long nightmares ended Sunday when Shelby Miller got a win in a 6-0 shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of a doubleheader.
Not content with ridding Miller and themselves of that dark cloud before the offseason, the Braves capped their end-of-season surge by completing a series sweep of the Cardinals with a 2-0 shutout in the second game of the doubleheader, when rookie Matt Wisler was even more dominant, albeit against a lineup filled with backups.
Miller, the Braves’ best pitcher despite a 6-17 record, ended a franchise-record 24-start winless streak by shutting out his former team for eight innings. He allowed five hits and three walks with seven strikeouts in eight innings for his first win since May 17, and was overjoyed to end a frustrating season on a high note.
“Oh, man, absolutely,” Miller said. “You don’t really expect to finish quite that well. I’ve been struggling with my mechanics a little bit for a couple of games, and this one felt good. That’s the best I’ve felt in a while. Good way to end the season, for sure.”
Adonis Garcia had two home runs in the first game and had a first-inning RBI single in the first inning of the second game to score Michael Bourn, who added an RBI single of his own in the seventh inning.
Wisler came within one out of throwing a complete game, and reliever Edwin Jackson struck out Randal Grichuk to end the game with runners on the corners, giving the Braves three shutouts against a Cardinals team that rested its regulars for much of the rain-soaked series in preparation for the playoffs.
The Braves were nevertheless buoyed by the results and the improvement of their pitchers not just this weekend but in recent weeks. They were 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA in the last 15 games after going 4-26 with a 6.58 ERA in the previous 30. The Braves won four of their last five series after losing eight of the previous nine.
They were 8-1 with a 0.63 ERA in their last nine home games, after going 1-14 with a 6.62 ERA in the previous 15.
“It’s been great,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “These young guys, it takes them a little while. We were patient with them, kept running them out there. It’s nice to go into the offseason knowing, OK, we’ve got some guys who can really help us next year…. I feel good going into this winter about our chances next year.”
In his 19th major league start, Wisler (8-8) allowed four hits and one walk with three strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings, leaving after issuing a two-out walk to Tommy Pham in the ninth.
He faced one batter over the minimum through eight innings, inducing double-play grounders immediately after two of three hits in that span. St. Louis didn’t advance a runner to second base until Brandon Moss’ one-out double in the ninth.
‘To end on a positive note, to feel good going into next year is going to be nice,” said Wisler, who had a 2.21 ERA in his last six starts and was 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA in his last three. “I mean, I know I can get guys out at this level…. Everyone’s month of September was a lot better. As a team I think we got better, starting pitching got sharper.”
Andrelton Simmons added a two-run homer for the Braves in the first game of the doubleheader, raising their majors-low season total to 100 homers to avoid becoming the first Braves team since 1988 to total fewer than 100 homers.
It was the first multi-homer game for Garcia, a 30-year-old rookie whose 10 homers all came in 56 games during the second half of the season. Freddie Freeman (six) was the only other Brave with more than four after the break.
When the first game ended, Miller hugged everyone from teammates to Braves security guards at the clubhouse entrance.
“I’m obviously excited about a win, but at the same time the last start of the season I’m just hugging my teammates,” he explained. “We had a hell of a year. We played hard. Obviously it didn’t go the way wanted to, but a lot of these faces are probably going to be back next year, and these are your teammates. I know that’s probably my last time I’m going to get in a game this year, so I was just hugging it out and telling them great year.”
The Braves took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on RBI singles by Nick Markakis and Cameron Maybin against Cardinals starter John Lackey (13-10), yhe first time had a lead to work with since Aug. 26.
“Everybody did their part,” Gonzalez said. “We swung the bats, scored runs. (Miller) did one heck of a job, eight scoreless innings. He’s pitched some of the best baseball I’ve ever seen pitched and not gotten credit for it, and I’m glad we got him a W today, and he doesn’t have to worry about it, answering all those questions in spring training, that kind of stuff.”
Miller went 0-16 with a 3.83 ERA during a 24-start winless streak that was the longest by a Braves pitcher since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. Sixteen consecutive losses was a franchise record and the longest in the majors in 22 years.
“What great makeup,” Gonzalez said of Miller’s character. “He’s human, and we saw some (frustration) here and there, but for the most part this guy came in every single day after tough losses, after tough no-decisions, and was the same guy, same work ethic. It was nice (to end the streak). I think as a team we haven’t been this excited in a long time.”
What made Miller’s drought so remarkable that it came in a season when he was 5-1 with a 1.33 ERA through eight starts, made the National League All-Star team, and ranked among ERA leaders. His winless streak was nearly twice as long as the previous record by a pitcher in an All-Star season, fellow Texan Nolan Ryan’s 13-start drought for the 1983 Astros.
“It would have been different if we were going out there and not playing good baseball, not showing up ready to go,” said Miller, who never once blamed anyone else or alluded to his majors-worst run support this season. “But every day we’re ready to go. It’s fine when that kind of stuff happens. And it’s fine to put that behind us, absolutely. I’m glad we got a win today, I got a win today, and we have some positive vibes going into the offseason.”
When he faced the Cardinals for the first time on July 25 in St. Louis, Miller allowed just two hits and two walks in 7 1/3 innings and didn’t give up a run until the eighth. It still wasn’t enough as Braves were shut out, 1-0, one of 14 starts in which Miller received zero run support while in the game, the most such starts by an Atlanta pitcher since at least 1974.
His run support of 2.37 per nine innings pitched before Sunday was easily the worst in the majors, and the Braves scored a total of 25 runs while he was in during his 24-start winless streak. His ERA climbed above 3.00 for the first time when he gave up five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of his last start Sept. 27 at Miami.
He ended up with a league-high 17 losses despite a 3.02 ERA in a career-high 205 1/3 innings.
Along with his homers, each of Garcia’s 10 errors have also come since the break, including a second-inning error in the doubleheader opener to allow Jhonny Peralta to reach with one out. Brandon Moss followed with a single to put runners on first and second, but Miller retired the next two batters on a line-out and a ground out.
The Cardinals advanced a runner to second against Miller in only one other inning, the fourth, after Jason Heyward’s bloop single and Peralta’s walk put runners at first and second with one out. The Braves traded Heyward to the Cardinals in the November deal that brought Miller to Atlanta.
Moss followed with a fly ball caught one step in front of the center-field wall by Cameron Maybin. He got the ball in quickly to second baseman Daniel Castro, who fired to first base to catch pinch-runner Greg Garcia before he could retreat, completing the inning-ending double play.
While poor run support was the overwhelming factor for most of his winless streak, lately Miller’s own performance had slipped. After posting a 2.43 ERA and .221 opponents’ average in his first 24 starts, he had a 5.56 ERA and .306 opponents’ average while going 0-8 in his past eight starts before Sunday, when he was back in dominant form.
“His fastball still had good life to it (late in the game),” said former Cardinals teammate Greg Garcia. “It was the seventh when I faced him, and it had the Shelby Miller invisi-ball with that late get-up. He looked strong throughout the game. He looked sharp. Good way to end his year.”
And a good way for the Braves to end theirs.