Braves-Nationals: Pinch-Hit Homer Again Buoys Braves
The Braves had been pitching very well lately, but Kenshin Kawakami's first start since taking a liner off his neck was rather forgettable.
He surrendered runs in each of the first three innings, including the first hit and RBI of Washington starter Ross Detwiler's career.
Kawakami couldn't escape seeing the mammoth home run that Adam Dunn hit in the third inning to give the Nats a 4-3 lead.
The 91-mph fastball caught too much of the plate and landed several rows deep in the upper deck in right center field, probably some 500 feet from home plate.
While Kawakami struggled on the mound, his lineup bailed him out each time. Every time the Nats scored, the Braves came right back.
An RBI single from Matt Diaz in the top of the second inning scored Brian McCann to tie the game at 1-1.
In the third inning, Martin Prado doubled to right and Chipper Jones followed with a double of his own. Jones scored two batters later on a Yunel Escobar RBI single to tie the game at 3-3.
After Dunn's home run in the bottom of the third, Kawakami seemed to settle in a bit. The Braves responded.
The same trio came through again in the top of the fourth for Atlanta. Martin Prado singled, and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Chipper Jones drove in Prado with a single to left.
A Brian McCann single moved Jones to second, and then Escobar doubled over Dunn's head in left to score Jones and give the Braves a 5-4 lead.
Kawakami's ill-advised decision to throw to second on a slow chopper by Cristian Guzman with one out in the fifth was the last straw, as instead of two outs and one on, Kawakami was pulled after the throwing error with runners on second and third.
Boone Logan came on in relief and wound up retiring all five hitters he faced in the fifth and sixth innings. However, Josh Bard's groundout scored Josh Willingham from third to tie the score at 5.
After Yunel Escobar and Casey Kotchman worked walks from Jesus Colome in the top of the seventh, Bobby Cox sent the just recalled Brooks Conrad to pinch-hit with two out and two on.
Conrad, who had signed with the Braves as a minor league free agent after the 2008 season, was promoted after Kelly Johnson was placed on the DL earlier in the day with a wrist injury.
The switch-hitter was selected as a International League All-Star, but only had 19 career at-bats in the majors with Oakland last September.
He made his first plate appearance extremely memorable. He turned around a 95-mph fastball low and over the inside corner down the line and into the Nationals bullpen for an 8-5 lead.
Peter Moylan survived some control issues by escaping the seventh allowing only one run, despite giving up a single to Ryan Zimmerman and walking Adam Dunn to start the inning.
The Braves got the run back in the top of the eighth after a Martin Prado double, a walk to Chipper Jones, a sacrifice bunt by Brian McCann and an intentional walk to Yunel Escobar loaded the bases.
Matt Diaz was uncharacteristically patient facing reliever Julian Tavarez and drew a walk to extend the Braves lead to 9-6.
Garret Anderson's liner to right was too shallow to score Jones from third and the Braves couldn't add more, as the left the bases loaded again.
Mike Gonzalez was impressive in striking out the side in the bottom of the eighth. After going quietly in the top of the ninth, Rafael Soriano dug himself a big hole by walking Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman to start the inning and bringing Adam Dunn to the plate representing the tying run.
It seemed as if Soriano was going to escape unscathed as he got Dunn to pop out to Jones at third, and blew a third-strike fastball past Josh Willingham.
However, Cristian Guzman roped a double down the line in right, scoring both runners and making the score 9-8. Josh Bard then rolled over a fastball, grounding out to Casey Kotchman to end the game.
I look at Kawakami's error as a pivotal play in this game. If he takes the sure out at first, instead of trying to get the force at second, there's two outs and one runner on second with the catcher coming up next.
Kawakami had pitched pretty well the previous inning plus, and could have gotten through five innings with a 5-4 lead, thus giving himself a chance to win.
On a night when most of the pitchers who took the mound got hit hard, Logan pitched well in a perfect 1.2 innings of relief.
Soriano's inning was a rare bad one, as he's been great all year, but might benefit from a little rest soon. Bobby Cox, might consider using Manny Acosta and Logan a bit more to give the trio of Moylan, Gonzalez and Soriano a break on occasion.
That late inning trio has been overall excellent all-season. Moylan's ERA prior to tonight's outing had gotten below 4.00 for the first time all season.
Since starting the season giving up five runs in his first two appearances without recording an out, he's had an ERA under 3.00 each month since.
Exclude those two appearances in April, his ERA is under 3.00 for the season...same as Soriano and Gonzalez.
The Braves have a unique situation with two closers. As Joe Simpson mentioned on tonight's broadcast, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez have been very good if not great, and don't let their egos get in the way of who gets the save on the stat sheet.
It's a rare resource to have a left-right combination of hard throwing arms in the bullpen who can close out games.
The Braves' now season-high five game win streak comes at the heels of Bobby Cox pushing a lot of the right buttons.
Martin Prado has slid nicely into the lineup in the No. 2 spot in the order playing second base. Yunel Escobar appears to be healthy, and taken a quick liking to batting fifth behind Brian McCann.
I'm curious though about one thing. When was the last time the Braves got pinch-hit homers on consecutive days?
I don't know, but it's probably happened before. But another more interesting trivia question is: has a team gotten pinch-hit homers from players on consecutive days, who had never hit a pinch-hit home run before?
I'm guessing that the Elias Sports Bureau might have that information somewhere, but I don't.
Nevertheless, the middle of the line-up got it done. Every starter except Jeff Francoeur got at least one hit, and the 2-6 hitters in the Braves lineup went a combined 11-for-20 with 5 BB, 6 RBI, 4 R, and 3 sacrifice bunts.
The Braves hope to ride the suddenly hot bats of Matt Diaz, Martin Prado and Yunel Escobar to another win on Saturday afternoon, as Tommy Hanson goes for his fifth straight win.
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