ATLANTA - To take one look at Nick Markakis is to know that this is not a champagne guy. The man does not, by any definition of the word, do bubbly.
But after an early June game in which nothing was clinched — the Braves did tie Philadelphia for first in NL East, with only 96 games left to play this season — they broke open champagne in the SunTrust home clubhouse. They wished to toast the long, good work of the Braves rightfielder on the night he surpassed 1,000 career RBI.
“I had to take a couple sips of it out of respect,” Markakis said.
Needing two to reach that milestone, Markakis decided not only to become the eighth active player to go four figures in RBI, but also to get a running start on his next thousand. His four hits and four RBI underscored a night of hits at SunTrust, the Braves taking out Pittsburgh 13-7. His eighth-inning home run was one of five hit by the Braves Monday.
Beside the warm reception both the customers and his teammates paid Markakis, the night’s other highlights included: A third career multi-home run game for Ozzie Albies, the second this season. A grand slam by his buddy, Ronald Acuna, proving he can do it in the regular season, too. The season’s 18th homer by Freddie Freeman after bouncing one off leftfielder Bryan Reynolds’ glove and just off the top of the wall. And the kind of relief work by Sean Newcomb that just might get him out of bullpen limbo.
And there was one notable lowlight, sure to be a SportsCenter moment.
Baseball can be such a silly, silly game.
Having thrown but 18 pitches, the last one scarcely disturbing the starch on Josh Donaldson’s jersey, Pittsburgh starter Joe Musgrove was exiting Monday night’s game against the Braves. The cause was insult, not injury.
As Donaldson was shucking his body armor and slowly making his way to first, he and Musgrove decided to go to the mattresses, baseball style. They looked sideways at each other. A few “Whaddya looking ats” were exchanged, only a little spicier than that. A skirmish broke out. Musgrove dropped his glove like a hockey player who might actually know how to fight. Donaldson shoved Pirates catcher Elias Diaz. Benches emptied. The bullpens ran in and got there just in time to sweep up after this circus parade had already passed.
In all, a confrontation of comic proportions. A triumph of testosterone over reason.
Donaldson’s side: “I feel like he came down the mound afterward. I looked away to give him a chance to look away from me. He kept kinda coming down the mound looking at me and I felt like obviously he had a problem with something.”
Musgrove’s take: “I did nothing more than stand my ground. I hit him with the pitch and he stared at me and tried to intimidate me and I'm not going to let that happen. I looked back at him and he had something to say and he crossed the line and came at me, so I took my hat and glove off and got ready to fight and that got me tossed. I don't know what else I could do in that situation.
“I'm not going to run away and hide.”
Deeming both their actions too provocative, home plate umpire Brian Gorman tossed the two of them, along with Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle.
It was a fine transaction for the Braves. They lost a cleanup guy currently hitting .237. The Pirates lost a starter who went eight innings his last outing, beating these same Braves.
And, seeing how the Pirates already had three starters on the injured list, and had to burn another potential one Monday after Musgrove’s ejection, it further scrambled their rotation for the three-game remainder of this series vs. the Braves.
The Pirates had to start spackling their starting pitching early, and the Braves exploited that, Acuna’s grand slam powering a five-run second inning.
But by the top of the next inning, both teams’ starters were gone.
The Braves Kevin Gausman had his third straight ugly outing, coming on the heels of 15 earned runs over his last six innings pitched. A Sterling Marte three-run home run narrowed the Braves lead to 5-4. And following a walk to Colin Moran, Gausman was gone, having given up four runs, two of them earned, in two-and-a-third innings.
“The last couple outings haven’t been real good and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere good today,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of his decision to pull Gausman early. “We scored the five runs and guys were working hard to get it and it didn’t feel like it was going to work. I wanted to do something different.”
“I was a little surprised,” Gausman said about getting pulled, “but you kinda got to earn that right to stay in those games. Right now, I haven’t really earned the right to stay in the game.”
Newcomb came in and got the quick inning-ending double play, and went on to shut down Pittsburgh over 4 2/3 innings, yielding just one hit and no runs. Where the Pirates had no long-relief answer, the Braves did.
And now, it seemed appropriate to ask Gausman if he would be surprised if Newcomb got the start Saturday, the next time it would be his turn to throw. Gausman was a realist: “(Newcomb’s) stuff has been great. His problem has been the walks – and you can scratch that problem out. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be in the rotation. I’m not throwing the ball the way I should be, so we’ll see what happens.”
And more bad timing for Gausman, when 60 miles to the north in Rome, Dallas Keuchel was throwing seven scoreless innings, giving up just one hit, albeit against trembling Class A hitters. A change is coming.
But for all the foolish posing and the tremors in the rotation, Monday was more than anything else a salute a hitter who is just as steady and regular as his resting heartbeat.
Cheers, to Nick Markakis, even though he much rather force down the champagne in October.
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