Wiedmer: Braves keep looking better by the day

Wiedmer: Braves keep looking better by the day

August 19th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves logo

Atlanta Braves logo

ATLANTA - We'll begin the story of the Atlanta Braves' 2-1 victory over Washington on Sunday afternoon at the finish.

That's where Braves closer Craig Kimbrel needed to pick up Atlanta's last out of the ninth inning against Washington's brazen and brilliant Bryce Harper, who had been serenaded the entire soggy afternoon by constant boos.

"The best closer in the game against one of the game's best young hitters," Atlanta catcher Gerald Laird would say later. "That's the kind of matchup people pay to see."

What the Braves Nation had paid to see for most of the three games between these two was Men Behaving Badly, Diamond Edition. Hit batters. Ejections. Intensity on the edge of insanity.

It might be good to stir the fans, and few players currently on major league rosters foster more opponent ill will than Harper, who was the youngest All-Star starter in NL history earlier this summer (20), but whose petulance and posturing are already wearing thin with rival fan bases.

Harper didn't start Saturday's 15-inning win over Atlanta after being hit by a Luis Avilan pitch on Friday night. But he was back in action Sunday against Julio Teheran, who had beaned Harper on Aug. 6 after the slugger homered off him.

"It didn't mean anything to me today," Teheran said early Sunday evening of their history. "I went inside, I went outside. I was just trying to make a good pitch."

But it clearly meant something to Harper, who had collected a single, a double and a walk by the time he came to the plate in the ninth to face Kimbrel with one aboard. Hit a homer and the Nationals might win, which would make two wins in a row over the Braves, which might plant the tiniest seed of doubt in the mind of a team that appears to have no doubts at the moment.

As for any lingering bad blood between Harper and Teheran, Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez dismissed it.

"It's over," he said. "Two boys playing in a sandbox, a schoolyard. It's done. I don't see anything going on the rest of the way."

But there's now a lot going on anytime Kimbrel enters the game at Turner Field. It begins with the Guns N' Roses anthem "Welcome To the Jungle" blasting eardrums from the stadium's sound system. Duly driven to their feet, fans roar as Kimbrel sprints in from the bullpen, a scene right out of fictional reliever Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn in "Major League."

Only fact has been better than fiction where Kimbrel's concerned. The guy's now saved 39 on the season and 29 straight, dating back to May 9. He's given up one run since May 7. His ERA now stands at 1.07.

But he had surrendered a hit to Denard Span when Harper arrived at the plate to one last round of boisterous booing.

Behind the plate, Laird could barely suppress a smile.

"That matchup, it's just great fun," he said. "There's nothing else to say."

The first pitch was a ball. The second a fouled strike, just like the third and the fourth. Out on the mound, Kimbrel kept doing his thing, crouching low enough to stare down a chihuahua, then launching into his windup before bringing the heat.

The count 1-2, Kimbrel's right arm sent one more missile toward the Braves Nation's public enemy No. 1, who was batting left. He checked his swing. The third base umpire signaled strike. Another Atlanta victory, its 76th of the season against 48 losses, was in the books.

"We came in here on vapors," said Gonzalez, referring to Saturday night's 15-inning loss, which didn't end until close to 1 a.m. "It's hard to hold a two-run lead in the major leagues, but we did it."

What's done is any suspense about the regular-season, other than the quest for baseball's best record heading into the playoffs. And that could come into much clearer focus by this time next week, the Braves having completed a six-game road trip to New York and St. Louis that ends with four games at Busch Stadium this coming weekend.

The Los Angeles Dodgers - who look like baseball's best team right now, despite Atlanta having a better record - won three of four at Busch against a Cardinals team that seems to have been in decline ever since the Braves swept them out of Turner Field in late July.

The Redbirds will almost certainly have revenge on their minds this time around. But let Atlanta split, win three or sweep again and bookies from Vegas to Vidalia (assuming bookies exist in Vidalia, Ga.), will make the Dodgers and Braves the prohibitive favorites to reach the NLCS.

But none of that was on Gonzalez's mind Sunday evening. Though Kimbrel kept a low profile after this one, his skipper was clearly proud.

"Those two (Kimbrel and Harper) are going to have a lot of those over the years," he said. "We got the best of it today."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.