PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With two of the most dominant pitching staffs in the league, not much separates the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves.
When they face each other, winning usually comes down to a key hit — or a crucial mistake. Or, as what happened Saturday, both.
The Braves got a go-ahead RBI single from Alex Gonzalez in the 11th inning and Brian McCann added a two-run homer to lift Atlanta to a 4-1 victory over Philadelphia.
Gonzalez’s liner came two pitches after a potential out went off the glove of first baseman Ryan Howard. While the play was a tough over-the-shoulder catch, it’s one Howard admitted he should have had.
And, with such stingy pitching staffs, that might have been the difference.
“It kind of slipped through my glove,” Howard said. “I thought I had it and I should’ve made the play, but you can’t do anything about it now.”
Added Phillies manager Charlie Manuel: “He usually catches that ball most of the time.”
After Philadelphia starter Cliff Lee and his Atlanta counterpart, Tommy Hanson, staged a classic pitchers’ duel, five relievers kept the opposition off the board entering the 11th.
Pinch-hitter Eric Hinske led off the 11th for the Braves with a walk off Michael Stutes (3-1), and pinch-runner Wilkin Ramirez went to second on Jordan Schafer’s sacrifice.
Howard could have gotten the second out, but he failed to catch Gonzalez’s foul pop fly. It was ruled “no play,” and two pitches later, Gonzalez lined a single to center, scoring Ramirez and putting the Braves ahead 2-1.
Stutes didn’t place blame on Howard.
“It was a tough play,” Stutes said. “He had a long run. It was just another strike.”
McCann followed by launching Stutes’ 1-2 pitch into the seats in right.
“I was getting my pitches up and I paid for it,” Stutes said.
It was the second straight extra-inning game for the teams, following Philadelphia’s 3-2 victory in 10 innings Friday.
“We have to keep close to these guys,” Gonzalez said after the Braves pulled within 2 1/2 games of the Phillies. “Both teams have great teams. We’re still fighting and we want to keep it close.”
The Braves (54-37) have won 10 of 12. Philadelphia (56-34) remains one win shy of tying the club record for victories in the first half.
“I know we’re good, I know we have a lot of talent,” Lee said. “You have to limit your mistakes and play fundamental baseball to win. Anytime you play a team in your division, much less a team that’s been as hot as you are and right behind you, it’s a very important series.”
Lee accounted for the Phillies’ only run with his first career homer off Hanson.
Neither Lee nor Hanson earned a decision, although both were worthy of a win. Lee pitched eight innings, allowing three hits and striking out nine while walking two. Lee had won each of his last six home starts and now stands at 7-1 at home while lowering his ERA to 1.61 at Citizens Bank Park this season.
After having his 34-inning scoreless streak snapped in his last start at Toronto, when he gave up seven runs — six earned — in 7 1-3 innings, Lee was back to being the pitcher who went 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA in June. His only blemish Saturday was Dan Uggla’s homer on the first pitch of the fifth inning. Other than that, Lee allowed just one base runner to reach second.
“We know it’s a good series,” Lee said. “They’ve been playing well and are right behind us. They have an unbelievable bullpen and starting pitching and it showed the last couple of days.”
Hanson was equally dominant, scattering four hits while striking out six and walking one.
Aside from Lee’s third-inning solo homer, the only Phillies batter to advance to second was John Mayberry Jr., who doubled in the sixth. The right-hander was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning after tossing seven innings, and the no-decision snapped Hanson’s career-high streak of five straight wins.
“Going up against a pitcher like (Lee), you always want to go up against the best and see what you’ve got against the best,” Hanson said. “Besides the ball he hit out, I felt like I did a pretty good job.”
Lee homered on a 3-2 count, on the 10th pitch he saw, into the first row in right-center to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead in the third. He pumped his fist slightly while rounding first once the ball cleared the fence. Lee, who entered 8 for 39 (.205), was given a curtain call by the crowd of 45,637, the Phillies’ 171st straight sellout.
“Anytime you do anything to help the team in a positive way, you definitely feel good,” he said. “It was a first for me in my career and hopefully I get an opportunity to do something like that again. I try to take every aspect of the game serious and try to do everything I can to help the team win.”
George Sherrill (2-1) worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the 10th to earn the victory, allowing two hits and striking out one. Craig Kimbrel pitched a scoreless 11th for his 28th save in 33 chances.
“It’s big. We want to come in here and win the series and that’s what we try to do with everybody,” Hanson said.
Atlanta’s Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty combined to pitch two hitless innings in relief of Hanson, while Sherrill worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth. The Phillies loaded the bases in the 10th off Sherrill, but the left-hander got Mayberry to ground out to first to end the frame.
“Our pitching is right there,” McCann said. “You’ve seen the last two nights. We’re going to hang in there until the end. Our guys are coming in and putting zeros out of the bullpen on a nightly basis. Our pitchers are matching them pitch for pitch. It’s been fun to be a part of.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)