Home runs, bullpen produce Braves' 'best win' of season

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Freddie Freeman (5) of the Atlanta Braves hits a two-run home run in the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals on Thursday, September 10, 2020 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. - Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America/TNS

The Braves’ biggest liability, starting pitching, caused them to trail 5-0 in the second inning Thursday night. But then the signature strengths of the 2020 Braves, power hitting and relief pitching, fueled an impressive comeback against the Washington Nationals.

The Braves opened their final road trip of the regular season with a 7-6 win on the strength of four home runs and 7-1/3 innings of one-run bullpen work.

The comeback was a welcomed development for a team that arrived in Washington after 4 a.m. Thursday.

“I would say this is our best win (of the season), to be honest,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit a pair of two-run homers. “These are the games you could easily just get kind of get down, like ‘ah, we got in late, woe is us, we’ll just chalk this up and come back tomorrow.’ But that’s not us; that’s not our team.

“There’s a bunch of grinders in this lineup, and that bullpen, man, it’s pretty impressive watching it every single day. Starting an 11-day, 10-game road trip like this can only give us a big boost.”

The win was a microcosm of how the Braves remain in first place in the National League East despite a decimated starting rotation.

Home runs — Freeman’s two, a two-run blast by Ronald Acuna and a solo shot by Dansby Swanson — accounted for all of the Braves’ scoring. Swanson’s homer produced the winning run in the eighth inning after Freeman’s second homer tied the score 6-6 in the seventh.

One night after scoring 29 runs against the Miami Marlins, the most by a National League team in a game since 1900, the Braves scored just enough to beat the Nationals.

Braves starter Robbie Erlin lasted only 1-2/3 innings, surrendering three runs on four hits in the first and two runs on an Adam Eaton home run in the second. But then the bullpen took over and kept the game within reach.

Huascar Ynoa held the Nationals to one run in three innings. A.J. Minter worked 1-1/3 scoreless innings. Chris Martin and Shane Greene worked one perfect inning apiece. Then Mark Melancon finished the job in the ninth.

“I think the biggest praise tonight goes to Ynoa,” Freeman said. “He stops the bleeding in the second and gives us another three innings to bridge the gap to (the back end of) our bullpen.

“When you stop the bleeding and chip away, chip away, you start to get that energy back into the dugout.”

Freeman’s two-run homer in the fourth inning, following a walk by Acuna, was the first hit against Nationals starter Austin Voth and pulled the Braves within 5-2.

“I think a big boost for us was when Freddie hit the two-run homer to get us on the board,” Swanson said.. “It was like, OK, it’s only 5-2, this is something we can overcome. And it just started to roll from there.

“The (relief) pitchers were great — give a lot of credit to them because what they did tonight was not easy. Just being able to continually keep the game where it was, that was such a big deal, because the way we’ve been clicking offensively, I felt that was going to allow us to have a chance as we kept moving forward.”

Acuna’s two-run opposite-field homer in the fifth inning, on the first pitch from Nationals reliever Wander Suero, made it 5-4. After the Nationals managed to add a run against Ynoa in the fifth, Freeman’s second two-run homer tied the game 6-6 in the seventh and set the stage for Swanson’s game-winning homer an inning later.

“He’s just a winning ballplayer,” Freeman said of Swanson. “He’s got a knack for the big hit.”

“I love competition, and I love to win” Swanson said. “So I feel like as those moments keep showing up later in games, it’s just an opportunity to be able to do something.”

The Braves didn’t expect Erlin to pitch deep into the game because he was working on just two days rest after throwing 42 pitches in three innings of relief Monday. But they hoped for a bit more than 1-2/3.

The short start was the continuation of a trend for the Braves’ decimated starting rotation. The starters have completed four or fewer innings in 25 of the Braves’ 44 games, and only one of the 30 MLB teams, Boston, has gotten more starts of four or fewer innings this season.

“We all know the innings haven’t been there at the beginning of the game, but that can turn around in a heartbeat, and we believe it will,” Freeman said. “We had a couple of injuries, a couple of guys go down. We’re mixing and matching right now. Josh Tomlin has been huge for us, and he’s going (Friday), so we’re counting on another good start from him.”

Tomlin pitched six innings against the Nationals in Atlanta on Sunday.

In the four games since, Braves starters have lasted three innings (Ian Anderson), four innings (Kyle Wright), 3-1/3 innings (Tommy Milone) and 1-2/3 innings (Erlin). But the Braves nevertheless have won the past two of those four games.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)