On Braves’ walk-off win, Reynaldo López’s strong start and Chris Sale’s impact

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On Braves’ walk-off win, Reynaldo López’s strong start and Chris Sale’s impact

ATLANTA — A play in the Braves’ infield opened the door for the Miami Marlins in the ninth inning Wednesday, but multiple plays in Atlanta’s infield slammed it shut.

After two runs scored on first baseman Matt Olson’s bases-loaded fielding error on a grounder that caromed off his chest with none out in the ninth inning, the Braves got strong throws to the plate by shortstop Orlando Arcia in the ninth and third baseman Austin Riley (from his knees) in the 10th that prevented go-ahead runs from scoring.

They won 4-3 on Michael Harris II’s walk-off double leading off the 10th inning after A.J. Minter struck out the Marlins’ Jazz Chisholm Jr. with bases loaded in the top of the inning. The Braves, who allowed just one run in the three-game series before the ninth inning Wednesday, completed a sweep and have won nine of 10 games.

“Every game isn’t going to be pretty, but I’m just glad our defense gave us a chance to just need one run at the end,” said Harris, whose drive to left-center landed between two outfielders and scored Ronald Acuña Jr., the ghost runner at second base after grounding into a double play with two on to end the ninth.

The Marlins had three hits through eight innings against starter Reynaldo López, who pitched seven innings in his fourth consecutive strong start, and Joe Jiménez. But with a 3-1 lead, closer Raisel Iglesias allowed three consecutive singles to start the ninth, followed by Josh Bell’s grounder to Olson that took a bad hop, in the view of manager Brian Snitker.

With the score tied, Iglesias made the first clutch play of the inning when he fielded a slow roller off the bat of Jesús Sánchez and fired a sizzling strike to Olson for the first out. Tim Anderson followed with a grounder to Arcia, whose throw to catcher Chadwick Tromp was on target to cut down Chisholm.

“He’s an All-Star, so I’m not surprised,” Tromp said of Arcia. “That was a really good play for us to get Iggy out of that little jam. Kept the game tied up, went into extra innings, and you know what we do in extra innings.”

The Braves are 3-0 in extra-inning games including two walk-off wins at Truist Park.

Iglesias got a strikeout to end the inning, and Riley prevented a run in the 10th when he lunged to his left to field a 99 mph Christian Bethancourt grounder and made an impressive throw from his knees to catcher Travis d’Arnaud for the second out.

“I was just happy to be part of a play that kept us in the game like that, and obviously even more happy with the win,” Arcia said through a translator, seeming more impressed by Riley’s play than his own. “If you can look (at the video), you’ll see I was probably the most excited person on the field when he made that play. I went right up to him and hit him right on the chest, just to congratulate him on that play.”

The ninth inning prevented López from improving to 3-0 but took nothing away from his fourth stellar outing in as many starts for the Braves. He gave up three hits, one run and two walks with six strikeouts in a season-high seven innings and left with a 3-1 lead. His 0.72 ERA is the second-lowest among MLB qualifiers behind Boston’s Kutter Crawford (0.66).

Sánchez’s second-inning home run off López was the first homer and only the second run allowed by the right-hander in his first season as a starter since being in the role for part of the 2021 season.

After spending the past two seasons as a reliever with the Chicago White Sox — and parts of 2023 with the Cleveland Guardians and Los Angeles Angels, too  — López has surpassed expectations in his first month with the Braves, who signed him to a three-year, $30 million contract in November with the understanding that he’d be given a chance to start.

“The guy’s been phenomenal for us,” Tromp said. “It was impressive. Seven innings?  That’s a high-quality start right there for us. He had all his pitches working. He was composed throughout the whole game.”

Home Sale unbeaten

Chris Sale will try to remain unbeaten at Truist Park when he faces Cleveland on Friday in the opener of a series between the teams with the best records in baseball. The veteran left-hander is 2-0 with a 3.65 ERA in two starts at Truist Park, and 0-1 with a 5.11 ERA in two road starts.

When the Braves shuffled their rotation this week, recalling Bryce Elder from Triple A to start Monday, they did so to give López and other starters extra rest, and to separate left-handers Max Fried and Sale. So, instead of Sale following Fried, López is now between the two lefties.

“I think it’s probably good to do it,” Snitker said. “Obviously we started out like that (with Fried and Sale as Nos. 2-3 starters) because we wanted the two lefties to pitch that first series (at Philadelphia).”

The rotation reorder effectively made Fried the No. 1 starter now with Spencer Strider out for the season following elbow surgery. López moved to the second spot after beginning the season as the fifth starter. The third and fourth starters stayed the same — Sale followed by Charlie Morton.

After Elder pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings with eight hits but no walks in his season debut Monday against the Marlins, he wasn’t optioned back to Triple A. Instead, he will make his next start Sunday in the series finale against Cleveland and could stay in the rotation for a while.

Sale, a 14-year veteran, never pitched in Atlanta before facing the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 7, when he allowed four hits, two runs and no walks in 5 1/3 innings of a 5-2 win. After giving up five runs in seven innings of an April 13 loss at Miami — his only dud so far as a Brave — Sale limited the Texas Rangers to five hits, three runs and one walk in seven innings Friday to start the current homestand. He matched his season high with seven strikeouts in an 8-3 win.

Sale, 35, has long been known for intensity and ultra-competitiveness, and for being highly respected by teammates at his previous stops with the White Sox and Boston Red Sox. He’s brought that to the Braves, providing an edge that team officials were told to expect. Braves players say they’ve loved being around him since the first day of spring training.

If there’s been one surprising thing about Sale, it’s something that he revealed after his April 7 start: He never shakes off the signs from his catcher, whether it’s a young catcher or veteran. That’s extremely rare for such an established pitcher, particularly one known for being aggressive and in command on the mound.

“I kind of joke about it because, you know, in high school your coach calls the pitches,” Sale said, smiling as he explained why he never shakes off the catcher to go to a different pitch, going back to his years at Florida Gulf Coast University. “You get to college and I dare you to shake off your coach in college; I’d still be running, I think. I got to the big leagues, and my first catcher was A.J. Pierzynski — I’ll let y’all figure that one out.”

Pierzynski, notoriously brash, was a 33-year-old two-time All-Star in his 13th MLB season in 2010 when Sale was a White Sox rookie.

“So, I basically got to like, three or four years into the big leagues and I had never called a pitch on my own,” Sale said. “So it’s like, well, I got this far, why am I going to start? Why would I mess it up here?”

He added, “I had a very valuable lesson taught me early on when I was young about pitch-calling and the right pitch, if you will, and just throwing with conviction. So, it allows me to kind of attack and not worry about what pitch (is called), but where it should be, and how I attack.”

Albies, Murphy injury updates

Second baseman Ozzie Albies is expected to return to the Braves lineup Friday, the first day he’s eligible to come off the 10-day injured list after recovering from a fractured big toe on his right foot. Albies has been a fast healer after an April 15 incident when he was hit by a pitch that broke the toe. He took full batting practice the past few days and also did pregame infield work without any sign of favoring the foot.

Catcher Sean Murphy is also progressing from a strained left oblique sustained in the second game of the season but seems unlikely to return before mid-May, considering he’s not been cleared to swing a bat. Murphy caught bullpen sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Braves are cautious with Murphy since oblique strains can linger for months if not allowed to fully heal. They can afford to be patient since the Braves are getting good production from d’Arnaud and Tromp.

(Photo of Michael Harris II: Brett Davis / USA Today)