ATLANTA — If Atlanta Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz is to continue his ascension to the front-line starter he’s capable of being, he’ll need outings like the one he had on Saturday night along the way.
It wasn’t pretty, and he didn’t dazzle the scoreboard with big strikeout numbers, but he gave his team a chance to win when all signs pointed to an ugly night for him and the Braves. His defense let him down multiple times. Other times he let himself down by losing a hitter after having an 0-2 count or walking a batter on four pitches. His result was 5.1 innings, 3 runs, 8 hits, 3 walks 6 strikeouts. The team’s result was an 8-5 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, owners of the third-best record in the National League and the top spot in the NL wild card.
“I was proud of Folty,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He didn’t have (his) best, he wasn’t on mark that great. He had to pitch around a lot of traffic. I thought he did a great job of keeping the game manageable.”
Foltynewicz worked around traffic all game long, some self inflicted, some poor defense that won’t show up in the box score. On a night when the defense wasn’t clean and he wasn’t sharp, giving the Braves a chance against an offense like the Diamondbacks signifies another step forward.
The D-backs hit Foltynewicz early, swinging at the first four pitches they saw, resulting in two hits and a flyout. When Chris Owings hit a fly ball to right, it looked like Foltynewicz would escape the jam. But Braves right fielder Nick Markakis broke the wrong way for the ball and was unable to recover in time, allowing the single to drop in and the run to score.
Foltynewicz stared on the mound as it happened, showing nothing, but surely having thoughts of, “are you kidding me?” run through his head as the D-backs took a 1-0 lead in the first.
It almost got worse in the second inning. After two strikeouts and holding an 0-2 advantage over opposing pitcher Patrick Corbin, Foltynewicz lost control and walked him. That was followed by an infield hit that shortstop Dansby Swanson couldn’t get to. On Foltynewicz’s 51st pitch of the game, David Peralta hit a ground ball up the middle fielded by Brandon Phillips, who flipped to an unsuspecting Swanson before throwing to first for the out.
The blowup could’ve happened there, and in the past it might’ve. It didn’t, but he was tested again in the third. With a runner on first, Brandon Drury hit a chopper to the left side. As Swanson moved to his right, third baseman Johan Camargo was coming to his left. The two met in the middle, bobbled the ball and didn’t get an out. Foltynewicz dropped his shoulders and tilted his head in disbelief, his frustration visible throughout SunTrust Park, a situation he’s worked hard to avoid this season.
After Foltynewicz walked Chris Iannetta to lead off the fourth, Camargo bobbled what looked to be an easy double-play ball, settling instead for one out at first. Foltynewicz then walked Peralta on four pitches in front of Paul Goldschmidt, but his small-sample-size dominance over Goldschmidt (2-for-13, 6Ks in his career vs. Foltynewicz) continued with a groundout to end the inning.
“The competitiveness got out a little bit in me today more than I would’ve liked,” Foltynewicz admitted, “but certain situations where they’re big and you get excited, especially with where were at right now and how we’re doing, you just want to do so well out there every time for your team.”
Everyone wants six and seven innings of one- or two-run baseball, but sometimes it’s about surviving an inning and giving the offense a chance. The way the Braves are capable of swinging the bat, allowing three of 11 baserunners to score in 5.1 innings is manageable, and something the Braves are counting on from Foltynewicz when the situation arises.
It’s the latest in positive developments for the right-hander, who appears to be spear-heading a future rotation that has plenty of people in Atlanta excited. The team has won 10 of his previous 12 starts, and he has a 2.67 ERA over his last five games.
“He’s got a lot of potential,” D-backs manger Torey Lovullo said of Foltynewicz before Saturday’s game. “He’s got a lot of things moving in his favor.”
That has the Braves moving in the right direction. They’ve moved to six games back of the struggling Colorado Rockies in the wild-card standings, and it’s a clubhouse full of players who believe the playoffs are possible.
“We’re rolling pretty good and we’re just trying to get to the top of that mountain and start rolling down,” Foltynewicz said. “I think we’re right there. A couple more wins, and we’re just going to keep rolling. But it’s awesome to see the team win when I’m out there. That’s the main goal every time.”
Even when he’s not at his best, he’s giving the team a chance to win against quality opponents. He still needs to do a better job of finishing off at-bats with more effective “waste” pitches. He needs to eliminate the four-pitch walks that follow an unfortunate event of some kind in the game. He needs to reach the point where his shoulders don’t drop and his head doesn’t tilt when mistakes in the field add up.
He’s always had peaks and valleys throughout his young career, but outings like Saturday night show he’s capable of not allowing the valleys get too low. If he figures that part out, his ceiling is pretty high.