NEW YORK – Saddled with a four-game losing streak and facing the possibility of being swept by the Mets a four-game series for the first time since 1989, the Braves had the right guy on the mound Thursday in veteran Aaron Harang.
And who could’ve imagined saying that when the Braves signed him off the scrap heap in the last week of spring training?
The Braves scored three runs in the first three innings, and Harang did most of the heavy lifting the rest of the way in a 3-1 win against the Mets in a series finale at Citi Field.
Harang (9-6) ran his winning streak to four consecutive starts, allowing four hits, four walks and one run with two strikeouts in seven innings. He has a 0.90 ERA in three starts against the Mets this season, with six hits and two runs allowed in 20 innings.
After Jordan Walden faced four batters in the eighth and gave up two singles, Craig Kimbrel came in to collect his fourth career four-out save and second this season. Kimbrel struck out pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis with two on to end the eighth inning, then retired the Mets in order in the ninth for his 28th save in 32 opportunities.
Harang had just 59 strikes in 104 pitches, but appeared to throw most of those pitches precisely with a purpose in mind.
He gave up gave up nine runs in 4 2/3 innings at Miami on April 30, but Harang has a 2.06 ERA and eight quality starts in his other eight road games, including seven starts with two earned runs or fewer in six or more innings.
The Braves were just 5-for-38 with runners in scoring position during their four-game losing streak, and struggled again in those situations early Thursday despite jumping out to a 3-0 lead with two runs in the first inning and one in the third.
Andrelton Simmons singled and scored on Freddie Freeman’s double in the first inning, and Freeman scored on Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The Braves had runners on the corners with none out in the third after singles by Simmons and Freeman, but their only run in the inning scored when Justin Upton followed by grounding into a double play.
Harang limited the Mets to one run in the third after they got two hits and a walk from the first four batters of the inning. But it was the fifth inning where the crafty veteran really showed the value of experience.
After Daniel Murphy’s one-out single, Harang was careful not to leave anything over the plate to David Wright (whose RBI single in the third inning had made him 12-for-28 in his career against Harang) and left-handed hitter Lucas Duda. He walked each of them to load the bases and bring up right-handed hitter Travis d’Arnaud, who had grounded out in the second inning and again with two on base to end the third.
Harang coaxed a routine fly to center field from d’Arnaud to leave the bases loaded in the fifth, preserving a 3-1 lead.
Mets starter Bartolo Colon has allowed 11 runs in the first inning over his past five starts, but the third-inning run Thursday was only the fourth run the ancient, stocky right-hander has allowed in all other innings of those past five games.
The Braves had opportunities to score more early, but went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position in the first four innings. They failed to score after getting two on with none out in the second and two on with one out in the fourth.
Harang gave up 20 hits in 15 innings over his past two starts before Thursday, but opponents scored just five earned runs against him in those games. He gave up 11 hits in seven innings at Philadelphia on June 29, but the Phillies only scored twice against him as he worked out of one tight spot after another.
He only had to do that a couple of times Thursday, and Harang didn’t have much trouble getting it done again.