Michael Cunningham: Braves return to bats-and-bullpen blueprint to beat Marlins

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The Braves got four ineffective innings from left-hander Max Fried to open their National League Division Series on Tuesday. That was trouble for the Braves. Fried is their best starter by far. Losing the opener of a five-game series with their ace on the mound would mean finding a way to win three games with lesser arms.

Instead, the Braves brushed off the blueprint that won the NL East. After advancing to the NLDS by pitching better than the pitching-rich Reds, the Braves beat the Marlins, 9-5, with big bats and their bullpen.

Travis d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the seventh inning put the Braves ahead for good. Dansby Swanson added a two-run shot for good measure. Ronald Acuna homered to lead off the game for the Braves. Marcell Ozuna hit an RBI double in the third inning, after the Marlins took a 4-1 lead, and he scored on d’Arnaud’s double.

In their wild-card series against the Reds the Braves scored six runs in 21 1/3 innings. They matched that in the eighth inning against the Marlins. These were the big-bat Braves we’re used to seeing.

“It was nice to be able to have a breakthrough game today,” d’Arnaud said. “The Reds have great pitchers. They were able to get us out in big moments. We all knew we kind of needed to focus a little more.”

He said the team worked on that between series. The Braves said Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara sharpened their focus even more, even if unintentionally.

Acuna’s second time up, Alcantara hit him with a 97-mph fastball. It’s the fifth time the Marlins have hit Acuna with a pitch. Acuna, through an interpreter, said that number was the gist of his message to Miami’s dugout before he took his base.

Braves manager Brian Snitker said he doubts Alcantara threw at Acuna on purpose. But he said because of the context — Acuna’s history with the Marlins and his 428-foot homer earlier — Alcantara had to be sure he didn’t hit Acuna when pitching inside.

“I think that might have woke us up a little bit, actually,” Snitker said.

That’s how a lot of people will see it. I don’t know that I’m buying it. After Ozuna’s RBI double, the Braves didn’t score another run off Alcantara over the next 3 1/3 innings (he was charged with two runs that scored in the seventh).

Maybe Alcantara jolted the Braves by plunking Acuna. But I think it’s more the case that, as they’ve shown all year, the Braves are a hard lineup to hold down.

The Braves got their chance to come back because the bullpen kept it close. Fried had thrown only 70 pitches when Snitker pulled him. But he was missing inside with his off-speed pitches to right-handed batters. That’s a bad recipe against the Marlins, who have aggressive hitters that jump on fastballs.

“He didn’t have it,” Snitker said of Fried. “It happens.”

Five relievers followed Fried. Each pitched one inning. They combined to hold the Marlins to a run with three singles, three strikeouts and no walks. The run scored by the Marlins in the eighth against Chris Martin is the only one surrendered by Braves relievers over 15 postseason innings.

“These aren’t ‘matchup’ guys,” Snitker said of his ‘pen. “They are ‘clean inning’ guys. It’s been well-constructed.”

The same is true for the Braves’ lineup. As good as their bullpen has performed, the Braves wouldn’t have won a third consecutive NL East if their hitters didn’t regularly bail out the starting pitchers.

The Braves have one of MLB’s best left-handed hitters, Freddie Freeman. They have one of the best righty hitters, Ozuna. Acuna’s homer Tuesday again showed his superlative opposite-field power. Catcher d’Arnaud is one of the best hitters at his position.

Braves hitters lower in the order also give pitchers trouble. Swanson has become a solid all-around hitter. Adam Duvall hits for power. Nick Markakis makes pitchers earn it by putting balls in play.

There are no platoons for the Braves this postseason. They aren’t matching up with opponents. They just mash with the same guys.

“Our lineup is what it is,” Snitker said before Game 1.

Snitker repeatedly has expressed his appreciation for the lineup built by general manager Alex Anthopoulos. After last season he signed Ozuna and d’Arnaud at bargain prices. There were risks with both players because they were coming off with down years with injuries. The payoff has been big.

Catcher Brian McCann’s days as a good hitter were fading when he reunited with the Braves last season. D’Arnaud is a big upgrade. Josh Donaldson was great for the Braves last season. Ozuna doesn’t have near the same defensive value of Donaldson, but he’s been even better as a hitter.

The Reds managed to quiet the Braves’ bats with starters Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo. The Marlins don’t have one pitcher of that caliber. Alcantara gave up the two runs early, and then the Braves pounced on Miami’s bullpen in the seventh inning.

Marlins reliever Yumi Garcia hadn’t allowed a home run in 15 innings during the regular season and three in the playoffs. He gave up one to d’Arnaud, the Braves’ fourth-best hitter, in a big situation.

James Hoyt replaced Garcia to face Swanson. He smashed Hoyt’s first pitch over the left-field wall. Swanson’s 10 home runs this season were fifth on the team.

The bullpen preserved the lead. Martin had a bit of trouble in the eighth inning. He limited the damage to a run when pinch-hitter Jorge Alfaro grounded hit weakly back to the mound with two runners on base. Mark Melancon pitched a perfect ninth to secure the win.

That completed the bats-and-bullpen formula that’s carried the Braves this far. They are so good at it they can pull it off even when their best starter has a bad day.

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

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS