Braves walk off to maintain NL's best mark
Magic number to clinch home field at 4 after Simmons' winner in ninth
By Mark Bowman / 9/24/2013 11:30 PM ET
ATLANTA -- As his team spends the regular season's final week fighting to gain postseason home-field advantage, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will evaluate a number of options, including whether it would make more sense to start either Freddy Garcia or Paul Maholm in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
But there does not seem to be any reason for Gonzalez to concern himself with the possibility that Andrelton Simmons will be overwhelmed by the added tension October brings. Along with being the game's best defensive shortstop, Simmons has become a guy who seems to thrive in clutch situations.
Such was the case on Tuesday night when Simmons preserved Garcia's strong pitching performance and provided the Braves a much-needed 3-2 win over the Brewers with a single that accounted for his third walk-off hit off the season.
"He thrives in those spots," Braves outfielder Jason Heyward said. "He wants to be in those situations. Our lineup usually puts up some pretty good [at-bats] late in the game, especially at home."
With their 24th last at-bat win of the season, the Braves strengthened their bid for home-field advantage by maintaining their half-game lead over the Cardinals in the race for the NL's best record. Because Atlanta owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over St. Louis, its magic number to clinch this luxury is four with five games remaining.
"We've been playing the best baseball in the National League for the whole year pretty much, and you have to smell it," Simmons said. "You have to feel it coming, but we still have to work for it."
While surrendering just two runs over seven innings, Brewers starter Tyler Thornburg extended his recent success and subdued a Braves offense that awoke in timely fashion. Justin Upton began the bottom of the ninth with a single and advanced to second base when Evan Gattis capped his three-hit night with a sharp one-out single that Scooter Gennett knocked down behind the second-base bag.
This set the stage for Simmons, who swung through a first-pitch curveball and then hit the second straight one thrown by Donovan Hand to the right-center-field gap, allowing Upton to score in uncontested fashion.
Simmons has batted just .194 (26-for-134) with runners in scoring position. But with his third walk-off hit of the season, he improved his batting average in close-and-late situations to .300 (30-for-100).
"He's got a pretty good temperament," Gonzalez said of his shortstop. "I think he just keeps getting better and better."
There was plenty for Gonzalez to like about what he saw from his pitching staff. Garcia improved his bid to gain a playoff start by limiting the Brewers to two runs and six hits in 6 2/3 innings. The veteran's effort was preserved by Alex Wood, who stranded a runner at second base in the seventh inning, and David Carpenter, who did the same while working a scoreless eighth.
Craig Kimbrel capped a productive night for the recently susceptible bullpen with three strikeouts in a scoreless ninth inning.
"I think our bullpen was terrific, really, but [Garcia] gave us a great opportunity," Gonzalez said. "He knows how to maneuver himself through a Major League lineup."
When the Braves acquired Garcia from the Orioles on Aug. 22, he was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to compete against some of the same International League clubs he had faced since Baltimore had sent him to the Minors in late June. He was envisioned to be a veteran who could provide depth to Atlanta's pitching staff during the September grind.
But while compiling a 1.64 ERA in the 27 1/3 innings as a reliever and starter since being added to Atlanta's expanded roster on Sept. 1, he has created a strong possibility that he will get the nod over Maholm to start Game 4 of the NLDS.
"For me, it's a lot of fun because I was in Triple-A," Garcia said. "Now I'm a part of something real nice. I'm just trying to enjoy it."
Garcia's night began with a 10-pitch battle against Norichicka Aoki in a scoreless first. Two innings later, Aoki recorded a leadoff double that put him in position to score on Jonathan Lucroy's two-out single. Milwaukee's only other run came when Jeff Bianchi drilled the fifth inning's first pitch over the left-field wall.
"[Garcia] understands how to pitch," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "When he was with the White Sox when I originally saw him, he had really good stuff, and when he lost the good fastball, he figured it out. He figured out how to stay competitive and a good Major League pitcher for a long time by just being smarter than other guys."
With the benefit of two double plays, Milwaukee starter Thornburg faced the minimum through the first three innings. The only two runs he surrendered came courtesy of Gattis' game-tying double in the fourth inning and Freddie Freeman's one-out single that tied the game again in the sixth inning.
Like Gattis did after hitting his double, Upton got caught between second and third base on Freeman's sixth-inning single. But thanks to Simmons' ability to once again deliver in a pressure situation, these baserunning blunders did not prevent the Braves from taking another step toward securing home-field advantage.
"It's always good to have those close games and come out victorious," Simmons said. "It creates that winning habit that we've had throughout the year, and to keep that going into the postseason, it's a good thing."