ATLANTA (AP)—Less than two weeks ago, the Atlanta Braves were on the verge of falling 10 games behind in the NL East.
Well, look who’s back in the thick of things.
Yep, the team that’s won 14 straight division titles.
With their ninth victory in 11 games, the Braves (21-20) moved above .500 for the first time since April 7 and closed within 3 1/2 games of the first-place New York Mets in NL East.
Francoeur, who came up to the Braves a year ago at midseason, is getting an idea of how they do things in Atlanta.
“From what I hear, we’ve always been a slow-starting team,” the 22-year-old outfielder said after extending his career-best hitting streak to 16 games. “I’ve never been through it myself, but hopefully we’re coming together now.”
On May 7, the Braves were nine games back and trying to avoid getting swept by New York. They won that game 13-3, sparking the streak that turned the East into the expected three-team race. Second-place Philadelphia is only 1 1/2 games ahead of Atlanta.
“We can’t worry about those guys,” Andruw Jones said. “We’ve just got to worry about ourselves.”
They had no worries against the Marlins.
Chipper Jones, who hit a walk-off three-run homer in the 11th inning the previous night, picked up three more RBIs. His two-run single in the fifth gave the Braves a 5-1 lead, then Francoeur and Matt Diaz put it out reach by homering on consecutive pitches.
Francoeur wasn’t done. He homered again in the seventh, his 10th of the season, and looks like the player who made such a dazzling debut last season.
Actually, Francoeur feels like he’s a much better hitter than he was during his brilliant rookie season.
“I’m seeing tougher pitches to hit,” he said. “Last year, I was getting a lot of fastballs. This year, I’m working the count. My second homer came on a 2-2 slider. Last year, I probably would have grounded out on that pitch.”
Sosa (1-5) was one of baseball’s biggest surprises last year, when he went 13-3 with a 2.55 ERA. But he’s been a major disappointment this season, coming into Thursday’s start with a 6.52 ERA and well aware of speculation that he’ll be yanked from the rotation as soon as everyone gets healthy.
The last-place Marlins, who are on pace to go 46-116, were just what Sosa needed to turn things around. He gave up a homer to Reggie Abercrombie on the seventh pitch of the game, but bounced back to go a season-high 6 2-3 innings.
Sosa allowed six hits, struck out eight and didn’t walk anyone.
“I’m very relaxed now,” he said through an interpreter. “I was concentrating on making my pitches in the lower part, nothing high. My curve was working perfectly, my slider was good, too, and my fastball was real fast, 95 miles per hour. That’s a good combination.”
Like Sosa, Francoeur got off to a miserable start this season, with only two hits in his first 36 at-bats. He’s turned things around by going 26-of-74 (.351) with six homers during his hitting streak.
He kept it going with a leadoff double in the fourth, then hit a two-run homer off Scott Olsen (2-3) the next inning to make it 7-1.
The next pitch was Olsen’s last. Diaz lined his second homer in three days into the left-field seats, knocking out the Marlins starter with a dismal line: 4 2-3 innings, eight hits and eight runs.
Diaz, who platoons in left field with Ryan Langerhans, is on a 16-of-26 roll and already has a career-best 11 RBIs. He also made the best defensive play of the game, cutting off a liner into the left-field corner and throwing out Michael Jacobs trying to stretch the hit into a double.
“This is the most fun I’ve had since I was playing high school ball,” Diaz said.
The Marlins are having no fun at all, though it’s to be expected after they dumped all their high-salaried players and fielded a team that would probably be better off with another year of Triple-A experience.
Atlanta rallied to win the first three games of the series, overcoming a five-run deficit on Monday before pulling off nearly identical wins the next two nights. Both times, the Braves tied it up in the ninth, then won in the 11th after Florida went ahead in the top half.
“Tomorrow is a new day, a new series and new faces,” Marlins manager Joe Girardi said. “We’ll bounce back. We have no choice.”
Francoeur had his second two-homer game of the season and third of his young major league career, which is still less than a year old. … The consecutive homers by Francoeur and Diaz marked the third time this year the Braves have gone back to back. … Florida dropped to 3-19 at Turner Field since the beginning of the 2004 season. … Compounding the Marlins’ misery: right fielder Joe Borchard lost a routine fly ball in the sun, giving Diaz a gift triple in the seventh. … Marcus Giles scored for the Braves on a wild pitch in the third.