Freddie Freeman hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to put the Atlanta Braves back in the playoffs with a 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.
Freeman’s dramatic drive off Mike Dunn clinched at least a National League wild-card berth for the Braves, who squandered a big lead in the wild-card race with a huge collapse last September.
Longtime star Chipper Jones, who plans to retire at the end of the season, led off the ninth with a double. He moved to third on a wild pitch by Dunn (0-3) and scored when Freeman’s 22nd homer easily cleared the centre-field wall.
“There was never any doubt,” Jones said during the clubhouse celebration. “We knew that last year was somewhat of a fluke.”
Craig Kimbrel (3-1) worked a scoreless inning to help the Braves win their 22nd straight game started by Kris Medlen. The streak is the longest in the majors since the New York Yankees won 22 consecutive games started by Whitey Ford in 1950 and ‘53.
Returning to the postseason helps wipe away some of last season’s frustration for the Braves, who blew an 81/2-game lead in the wild-card standings and finished September 9-18. They missed the playoffs after one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.
This year, Atlanta cruised most of the way and wrapped up a postseason spot with more than a week to spare. And the Braves still have a chance to catch first-place Washington in the NL East. They moved within four games of the Nationals, who lost to Philadelphia 6-3, with eight to play.
“We are shooting for the stars,” Jones said. “It makes it all worth it. I’m happier for these guys because they worked hard.”
While he was being interviewed on television, the 40-year-old slugger was doused with bubbly and beer by teammates in a jubilant clubhouse.
“I am so cold right now!” he said.
Four of the five NL playoff spots are secured. In addition to Atlanta, Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco have all punched their tickets to the postseason.
The second-place Braves have a comfortable cushion in the wild-card race, and St. Louis leads the chase for the league’s second wild card.
The Braves, who will return to the postseason for the first time since 2010, have relied on Kimbrel, an emerging Cy Young Award candidate, while other youngsters like Jason Heyward and Freeman have emerged as productive everyday players.
Leadoff hitter Michael Bourn struggled in the second half, but still ranks third in the majors with 39 stolen bases.
Jones went 1 for 2 with two runs and a sacrifice fly that made it 1-all in the second. He is batting .296 and has 14 homers with 63 RBIs. His leadership has been unmistakable in a season that included a final All-Star appearance.
The Braves tied it 1-all in the second. Jones walked, moved to second on Freeman’s single and scored from second on Dan Uggla’s single.
After Martin Prado’s two-out triple in the third, Marlins starter Nathan Eovaldi struck out Heyward, but Heyward tripled with one out in the sixth and scored on Jones’ sacrifice fly to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.
Eovaldi was trying to win for the first time in six starts. He allowed four hits, two runs and two walks in six innings. He struck out eight.
A.J. Ramos got the first two outs for Miami in the seventh before Dan Jennings struck out pinch-hitter Jeff Baker with a runner on first. Heath Bell faced the minimum in the eighth for the Marlins, and Eric O’Flaherty did the same in the bottom half of the inning for Atlanta.
Donovan Solano hit his first career homer in the second to make it 1-0 and followed with a two-run shot in the seventh to make it 3-2.
Medlen did not win for the first time in nine starts, allowing five hits, three runs, no walks and striking out eight. The right-hander began the game with a 15-0 record over his last 27 starts dating to May 31, 2009.