ATLANTA -- Kris Medlen still is amazed that he's become the senior active member of the Braves' youth-brigade starting rotation -- "It's crazy; it's nuts," he'd said on Friday -- but since Tim Hudson was felled by a broken ankle, Medlen's indeed been that guy.
And since Hudson's season-ending injury July 24, Medlen has also raised his performance to another level, pitching like the ace the Braves will need him to be if they're to reach their goals this season and during the playoffs.
He got his eighth win in nine starts Saturday when he held the Padres to four hits in 7 1/3 scoreless innings of a 2-1 victory at Turner Field, and the Braves' National League East magic number was reduced to four after the Nationals lost to the Phillies.
Any combination of Braves wins and Nationals losses totaling four will give the Braves their first division title since 2005. They play a series finale Sunday against the Padres, then open a three-game series Monday at Washington.
Medlen (14-12) had five strikeouts with two walks to improve to 4-0 with a 0.98 ERA in his past four starts, and closer Craig Kimbrel gave up a leadoff homer to Chris Headley in the ninth before recording his majors-leading and career-high 47th save, and his franchise-record 37th in a row.
"I don't know if I'm a second-half guy or whatever it is," Medlen said. "I just feel like I've clicked, and in a game like this where you don't have much room for mistakes, you've just got to keep it close and execute your pitches." Freddie Freeman had three hits, including his 21st home run, to bolster a resume that should draw at least top-five MVP consideration. His sixth-inning leadoff homer pushed the lead to 2-0 and left Freeman one RBI shy of becoming the Braves' first 100-RBI hitter since Chipper Jones and Jeff Francoeur did it in 2007.
"Freddie's Freddie -- he's amazing," said Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, who drove in the game's first run with a two-out single in the fourth inning. "(Freeman) should be in that MVP talk, for sure. No doubt about it. Kid rakes." Johnson and Justin Upton had two hits apiece, with Johnson driving in Upton in the fourth. Upton and Freeman had consecutive singles to start the inning, and it was up to Johnson to get a run in after Evan Gattis flied out and Brian McCann popped out foul.
Johnson answered with a sharp single to left field off of Padres left-hander Robbie Erlin (2-3), a 22-year-old rookie who was charged with eight hits and two runs in six innings of his seventh major league start.
"We need another couple more like that during the course of the game for my stomach, but those will come," said Gonzalez, whose Braves have mustered 36 runs in their past 11 games (5-6).
The run against Kimbrel was the first he allowed since July 4, and the homer was the first against him since he gave up two May 7 at Cincinnati in his last blown save. Since then, Kimbrel had posted a 0.19 ERA with one run allowed in 46-1/3 innings.
"What he's done is incredible," Freeman said. "I think that's his 47th save. Let's see if we can get him three more." Medlen, after going 1-6 in his first 11 starts this season, is 13-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 19 games (18 starts) since.
"He's been awesome," Johnson said. "Ever since Huddy went down, our pitching staff's been amazing. So kudos to him.... Our pitching won the game tonight. Hopefully they'll hang with us (hitters), we'll get it going. Back end of September, guys are scrapping through it. But we'll be all right." Since Hudson went on the disabled list, Medlen is 8-2 with a 2.44 ERA in 10 games, with 54 strikeouts and 10 walks in 62 2/3 innings.
"I mean, it might be coincidence," Medlen said, "but you do see your team leader go down and it's something you definitely notice. I've been trying to pitch like this the entire year, and it just hasn't necessarily happened until now. I talked to Tom Glavine -- he was asking the same things before the game -- and I said I've just simplified. Just done what I needed to work on between starts, and get the ball and go, get the ball and go." Medlen is 8-1 in nine starts in that period, the other loss coming in a three-inning emergency relief appearance in a 15-inning game against Washington.
"His last four or five outings have been really good, off the top of my head," Gonzalez said. "I may be wrong on that; it may be more. He's been good. He's been terrific." Medlen said he felt even better Saturday than he has in his other games during his four-start winning streak.
"I established all three pitches pretty early," he said. "I knew I was going to have to establish all three. Usually it takes a couple of innings to kind of get the curveball going, but everything felt really good from the get-go. Just mixed pitches pretty nicely. It's good when me and Mac (catcher Brian McCann) are on the same page the entire game.
"I mean, obviously you have the opportunity to shake sometimes. But every time he puts a number down and you like it, you just get it and go, and we got in a pretty good groove." Medlen's been particularly tough for most of the season at Turner Field, where he improved to 8-2 with a 2.24 ERA in his past 10 starts. In that span he's won every home start in which the Braves scored any runs while he was in the game.
The Braves haven't been hitting much lately, batting .197 in the past 10 games before Saturday. Freeman's been a notable exception. After going 3-for-3 with a walk Saturday, he has a .396 average with 19 hits, four homers and 11 RBIs in his past 12 games.
"Three hits tonight, and a big home run to give us a little cushion," Gonzalez said. "He's been consistent. He keeps it pretty simple. He and Chris both keep it pretty simple at the plate." Freeman has hit .343 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in his past 26 games to raise his season average to .314, and he ranks third in the league in RBIs.
The homer and 2-0 lead was just enough for the bullpen, which had a rough outing in a 4-3 loss Friday to the Padres, giving up four runs after David Hale pitched five scoreless innings and left with a 3-0 lead in his major league debut.
The Braves snapped a five-game losing streak against the Padres, and it figured that would be Medlen involved: He's 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA in three career starts against them, all in the past 13 months. He has allowed only 14 hits and two walks with 20 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings of those games.
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