Down 4-1 to the Washington Nationals headed into the 8th inning in their home park…game over, right? Not for the 2013 Atlanta Braves. The extra-inning victory by the Braves in this game was more than just a statement to the Nationals that they weren’t going to just walk off with the NL East this year, it was a taste of what we will more than likely see all year from the Braves.
For months last season, even when winning, the Braves were far too dependent on Chipper Jones and Michael Bourn. It seemed that when those two weren’t hitting, the Braves couldn’t seem to find a groove as a team of hitters, and they hacked wildly at everything thrown on or near the plate.
This year, not only are the faces new, but so is the approach.
The Braves are showing patience at the plate, they are sharing the burden of picking up runners on base, and they go deep not just a lot–but when it counts. They play small ball to help lead them to the big hit, getting as many ducks on the pond as they can to chip away at a lead when behind.
And who would lead Atlanta to a comeback extra-inning win over the defending NL East champs? Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Dan Uggla, right?
How about Ramiro Pena and Chris Johnson, or maybe even Evan Gattis playing his first ever major league game at first base?
Improbable, but the truth. (I’ll give you a minute to Google those names)
Yes, the usual suspects were involved, but it was the heroics of the not so normally heroic that put the Braves over the top. It’s been that way all season. The big guns are firing well, but the other guys are contributing with every chance they get.
A perfect example is why Gattis was even playing first base to begin with. He’s a backup catcher, and was a longshot to even be on this club, but the way he’s been swinging the bat there was no way manager Fredi Gonzalez was going to take him out of the lineup. Then again, there was no way he was going to take starting catcher (until Brian McCann returns) Gerald Laird–hitting .400 BA, .455 OBP, .600 SLG and 1.055 OPS coming into the game–was going to be sitting either.
It’s got to be nice to have that kind of problem as a MLB manager.
So some nifty fielding (after a few early jitters) by Gattis over at first, a home run by Johnson to get the Braves on the board, some patient at-bats leading to a handful of walks, and a picture perfect bunt-hit and then ball-vaporizing home run by Pena, and suddenly the Braves are crashing the party at Nationals Park.
Did you Google those names yet? No worries, I have a feeling you’ll be hearing a lot more about them as the season progresses. The Braves and Nationals will undoubtedly have many more battles like this first game of the season between the two teams, and the division race will probably be just as tight and exciting.
The Braves are showing that they are built for it this year, and will not shrink from any challenge. Maybe the league could hire Mills Lane as a celebrity umpire for these games.