Atlanta-San Diego: Unlikely Trio Leads Braves Over Padres

James HulkaAnalyst IJuly 12, 2008

Raise your hands if you thought the three stars of tonight's game for the Braves would be Charlie Morton, Jeff Francoeur, and Brent Lillibridge. OK—did anyone get two of them? No? How about one? A few. That's what I thought.

Chipper came into tonight's game with one hit in his last 14 at-bats, and got three hits tonight, scoring once.

Francoeur had been swinging better since his recall, duly noted by Joe Simpson that his balance has been better at the plate and he's been trusting his hands. He'd only gone two for 12 since his recall, but tonight, the good swings fell, and his clutch two-out, two-run single in the sixth with the bases loaded reminded Braves fans of the clutch Frenchy we all like to remember.

And Brent Lillibridge. Yes—that weak hitting shortstop, who even made me wonder out loud, "Why is Bobby Cox playing a guy who's hitting .131 and striking out 40 percent of the time?" I know Escobar is hurting, but if it were up to me, Martin Prado is a better option at SS, and if you don't feel comfortable with him there, why not move Kelly Johnson over and play Prado at second.

It was Lillibridge who led off arguably the most important inning of the night by looking outside after Maddux got a two-seam fastball in on the young shortstop, who yanked it foul. He hit a line drive between Adrian Gonzalez and the first base bag for a leadoff double. Charlie Morton got the all-important sacrifice bunt down on the first pitch from Maddux, even though it wasn't a thing of beauty.

Gregor Blanco then got enough air under another Maddux two-seamer and got it deep enough to center for Lillibridge to score on the sacrifice fly.

It's been a while since the Braves needed a run and were able to manufacture it by getting a runner on, getting him over, and then getting him in. Productive outs have been hard to come by.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the night came when the diminutive shortstop hit a 406-foot shot over the left-center field wall for his first major-league homer. Since the Padres fans in the seats threw the ball back, the ball actually made it back to the 5'11", 192 lb, baby-faced infielder.

Morton, like in most of his other starts, was plagued by control problems, and in one inning they came around to haunt him. The fourth-inning run wasn't necessarily a product of him giving the Padres pitches to hit and them hitting line drive singles and doubles, but his not throwing strikes early in the count eventually leading to walks.

Gregor Blanco didn't take the greatest route to the ball or else Adrian Gonzalez might not have scored from first on Gerut's double, but that's beside the point.

The rest of the night, Morton didn't fall behind 2-0 on hitters. He showed a great curveball that left Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley off-balance right before they strolled back to the dugout after a swing-and-miss on strike three.

The control issues, getting behind in the count, then either walking too many hitters or being force to get a pitch over the plate is what's stopping Morton from being even better. He's got a lot of movement, good velocity on his fastball, and three or four quality pitches to throw. Now he's just going to have to learn how to pitch.

The unsung heroes of the night may have been the bullpen. 11 up, 11 down. Will Ohman got Morton out of a jam in the sixth. Blaine Boyer was dealing his 96 mph heater and getting three Ks in two perfect innings of work. Mike Gonzalez made relatively easy work of the side in the ninth, getting a strikeout in the process.

For once, the Braves got good pitching and just enough offense added to a solid bullpen outing from the relievers to win a low-scoring game for the first time in a while. They manufactured a run and three guys who'd been struggling coming into the game (Chipper, Francoeur and Lillibridge) went a combined seven for 12 with a homer, two doubles, three RBI, and three runs scored.

Jones' average went up five points. Lillibridge had a homerun. Francoeur had a hit with two outs and the bases loaded. The bullpen pitched three-and-two-thirds perfect innings. A runner at third with less than two out was brought in by a productive out.

The way things have been going for the Braves, one or two of these things would've been reasons to be upbeat. All of these happening—well there's quite a few smiles in the visitors clubhouse at Petco Park after tonight's 4-1 win, that's for sure.