ATLANTA — The fifth inning Thursday afternoon began with the Braves trailing 2-1. They’d just given away the go-ahead run because of an error. Manager Brian Snitker was ejected for arguing a strike that ended the fourth. It felt as though the Pirates, fighting for their first win of the series, finally had the upper hand.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and the Braves had a 6-2 advantage entering the sixth. It was another of their recurring explosive innings that, if you’ve watched this team over the past two seasons, comes as no surprise.
The Braves went on to defeat the Pirates 6-5, wrapping up their first four-game sweep of the Bucs since 1991. It came just a week after the Braves lost two of three in Pittsburgh. In fact, the Braves are 7-0 while the Pirates are 0-7 since that series finale.
“We’re playing good baseball top to bottom,” catcher Brian McCann said. “Starting pitching, bullpen, our lineup has been absolutely phenomenal. Our defense has been great. And we show up on a nightly basis to play. We have a lot of good things going on right now.”
Pirates starter Joe Musgrove started the game after he was ejected early in Monday’s game. He allowed one run through the first four innings, staked to a 2-1 lead. But as we’re learning with this club, the Braves can erupt in one frame and render the past obsolete.
Dansby Swanson walked to open the Braves’ half of the fifth. Freddie Freeman tripled two pitches later to even the score at 2-2. Josh Donaldson slapped a single to drive in the go-ahead run, flipping his bat on the way to first. Donaldson is appealing a one-game suspension for initiating the benches-clearing events of Monday that prompted Musgrove’s ejection.
After a Nick Markakis single, Ozzie Albies doubled into the left-center gap — the same area to where he guided his game-winning double Wednesday night — that tacked on another pair. Musgrove was replaced, but the Braves added one more on Matt Joyce’s grounder.
“This is the baseball we expect to play,” Freeman said. “What we’ve done the past two or three weeks is what we all envisioned. We knew when we put it all together we were going to be really good and tough to beat. The last couple weeks, it’s been fun to watch.”
So a 2-1 deficit, a contest developing into quite the pitchers’ duel, suddenly became another outing in which the Braves’ offense teed off. As was the case in their other wins against Pittsburgh, the Braves needed every bit of their batting prowess.
Albies, Freeman and Swanson each produced two hits in the onslaught. The Braves and Pirates each scored at least five runs in every game of the series.
“This is a tough team, my God,” manager Brian Snitker said of the Pirates. “That team reminds me a lot of our club. They never quit. They’re never out of a game. They grind out at-bats. I know they’ve lost a few in a row, but that’s a tough series. Very tough series, mentally and physically.”
Julio Teheran provided six solid innings, lowering his ERA to a surprising 2.94.
Teheran has pitched the best he has since his All-Star 2016 campaign, and his work against a deep Pirates lineup was yet another step in a positive direction. He owns a 0.81 ERA across his past eight starts.
“I used my fastball a lot,” Teheran said. “I know I was facing an aggressive team. I was just out there making my pitches the way I’ve been doing it.”
When Teheran was lifted, the Pirates re-entered the game. They smacked around Touki Toussaint, pulling within 6-4. Anthony Swarzak replaced Toussaint and preserved a two-run lead.
Toussaint allowed two runs on four hits in one-third of an inning. He allowed only five earned runs in 25-2/3 previous innings of relief.
“It’s tough to sweep four games,” Freeman said. “It really is. A lot of people don’t realize how hard that is. What we accomplished in this series, we should all be pretty happy about ourselves here, especially going into this series this weekend.”
These coming games are important ones: A three-game series against the Phillies awaits. The division rivals, expected to battle it out for the National League East crown all summer, haven’t played since the Phillies swept the Braves on opening weekend.
The Braves have since assumed first place and have a lead of 1-1/2 games over Philadelphia. They’re the second NL team to reach 40 wins (Dodgers, 45).
“This is more what I pictured for us,” Snitker said. “I felt like we had to get this thing going and play, let it play out. It’s been everybody, not just one guy. It’s a team effort and they’re playing and working up to their capabilities.”