Baseball / Sports

Atlanta Braves Andrelton Simmons makes a dramatic play on a ground ball by Philadelphia Phillies Marlon Byrd who was able to reach on a single despite the effort during the seventh inning of an MLB game on Sunday, July 20, 2014, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

La Stella fuels offense, Wood sharp in Braves' 8-2 win over Phillies

ATLANTA -- In eight weeks since he arrived from Triple-A, Atlanta Braves second baseman Tommy La Stella has been up seven times with bases loaded. He's come through with a hit in six of those occasions and cleared the bases in three including Sunday, when he did it to the Phillies again.

The rookie with the tree-trunk thighs has been a two-out, two-strike hitting machine, particularly with runners on.

La Stella's three-run double in the third inning broke the game open and sent the Braves toward an 8-2, series-clinching win at Turner Field, where Alex Wood was perfect over the final four innings of his rain-shortened, six-inning outing.

"Woody battled through some elements there," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, "and we took advantage of some of the base on balls that they gave us and got some crooked numbers up. Tommy La Stella keeps hitting that gap. Either left-center or right-center he finds that gap and usually finds it with people on base."

For the second consecutive Sunday, the Braves got a bases-clearing double from La Stella and a multi-run homer from Chris Johnson, the pair having done the same trick in a 10-7 win against the Cubs in the final game before the All-Star break.

Wood (7-7) limited the Phillies to three hits and one run with eight strikeouts and no walks, including six strikeouts in the third through six innings when no one reached base against the left-hander. He was replaced after a 1-hour, 39-minute rain delay before the bottom of the sixth.

Johnson's two-run homer in the second inning provided a 2-1 lead and gave the Braves third baseman more home runs in his past five games (four) than in his previous 90 games (three). He had three homers in the final two games at Wrigley Field before the break, and Sunday he took Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick out of the park in straightaway center.

"It's good for C.J. to go up there and swing the bat, get comfortable, be aggressive in the zone, not try to feel things out," Braves right fielder Jason Heyward said. "Him and Tommy gave us a big lift today, along with a lot of other good at-bats."

Kendrick (4-10) gave up five hits and six runs in five innings, with two walks, two hit batters and only one strikeout against a team that has the second-most strikeouts in the National League. He fell to 1-4 with a 6.99 ERA in his past six starts.

The Braves blew the game open with their four-run third inning, when La Stella's double was their only hit. Kendrick also hit two batters and walked two in the inning, including a bases-loaded walk for Jason Heyward.

Kendrick was a Braves nemesis for several years, but not so much lately. He's 2-3 with a 6.15 ERA in seven starts against them going back to August 2012.

John Mayberry Jr. staked Kendrick to a 1-0 lead with a second-inning homer. But as Wood has been wont to do, he snapped to attention after an early run. He retired 14 of 15 batters faced after the Mayberry homer, with only Koyie Hill reaching base in that period -- on a two-out bloop single in the second, which landed near the back of the infield.

"I was pretty frustrated because that was a bad miss by me when he hit that home run," Wood said. "It was frustrating, but then you've got to bear down. It felt pretty good when C.J. hit that two-run home run our next time up. That was definitely a big confidence-booster for me. I felt like after he did that, like I could hopefully take the game over, and that's what I was able to do."

Kendrick failed to protect the lead for even three batters. Justin Upton led off the bottom of the second with a double over the head of right fielder Marlon Byrd, and Johnson homered one out later.

The Braves open things up in the third after B.J. Upton's leadoff walk. He advanced to second when first baseman Mayberry failed to catch a pickoff throw, and moved to third on a groundout. Kendrick hit the next two batters, Freeman on the inner left thigh and Justin Upton on the back of his right arm just above the elbow. (Upton singled in the fifth and then came out of the game after his triceps, where he was struck by the pitch, tightened during the rain delay.)

After the hit batters, Heyward's one-out walk pushed the lead to 3-1, and La Stella's double to the right-center gap cleared the bases.

"When he went up to bat with the bases loaded, I looked up at the scoreboard at his stats with the bases loaded," Wood said, "and I was like, my God. He was hitting .887 or something crazy like that. And then two seconds later he hits another bases-clearing double with the bases loaded. It's unbelievable. Hopefully he'll keep doing that the rest of the year, because that's pretty unheard of."

La Stella also had a three-run triple at Philadelphia on June 28, and has four extra-base hits among his six hits in seven bases-loaded at-bats. All but one of those extra-base hits cleared the bases.

"Bases loaded is a big situation," La Stella said, "and I think the more you can remain calm and keep your emotions in check, the better success you'll have."

La Stella doubled again in the seventh and has seven extra-base hits among his nine hits against the Phillies. He raised his team-leading average with runners in scoring position to .325 (13-for-40), including 7-for-21 with three doubles and 12 RBIs in those situations with two outs.

"I think as hitters you've kind of got to want to be in that situation," La Stella said. "If you can kind of look forward to those situations you're going to be a little more successful. You're going to find yourself in those situations whether you want them or not, so I think it goes a long way to really see yourself in those situations and see yourself succeeding."

His three-run double came on a full-count pitch after getting behind in the count 1-and-2. Not surprising, considering La Stella's .299 average (26-for-87) with two strikes made him one of three qualifying NL hitters with an average as high as .270 in those situations.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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