ATLANTA — Austin Riley highlighted a three-hit night with his 21st homer and top reliever Tyler Matzek pitched a scoreless inning while making his first appearance in nearly two months. But as Braves manager Brian Snitker assessed a 7-1 win over the Cardinals on Tuesday night, he was most excited about what he saw from Ian Anderson.
“I’m just really happy for what he did,” Snitker said. “His stuff was really good. He needed that one. We needed to get him back to being Ian, and that was really a great step forward.”
As the Braves improved to 25-7 since June 1, they moved within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Mets in the National League East and gained reason to feel better about their starting rotation.
Anderson wasn’t overpowering or dominant as he limited the Cardinals to one run, despite allowing eight hits and one walk over five innings. But he was certainly better than he had been while posting an 8.10 ERA over the four starts that immediately preceded this outing. His struggles had increased reason to question whether the Braves should attempt to acquire Tyler Mahle, Zach Davies or another affordable veteran starter capable of eating innings down the stretch.
“The way we’re playing right now is fun, and I wanted to get in on the fun,” Anderson said. “But yeah, I think I’m in a good spot. I think the whole team is in a good spot.”
Anderson gained early support from Riley and William Contreras, who both homered during a five-run first.
Riley remains on pace for his first 40-homer season and Contreras’ opposite-field solo shot made him the seventh different Braves player to tally at least 10 homers this year.
This marks the first time in Atlanta history (since 1966), the Braves have had seven players hit 10 homers before the All-Star break.
With Ronald Acuña Jr. still sitting at seven homers, the Braves could easily add another player to this group and maintain the possibility of joining the 2019 Twins as the only teams to ever have eight players total at least 20 homers in a season.
With Dansby Swanson producing MVP-caliber numbers and Matt Olson adding to this offensive charge with an MLB-leading 32 doubles, the Braves have an offense that can cover some of the team’s holes.
Anderson’s latest effort may have at least closed one of those holes. But as the Braves debate whether to pursue a starting pitcher before the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline, they will evaluate his results and remain cognizant of Spencer Strider’s workload.
Strider has thrown 59 2/3 innings this season, including 35 1/3 over the seven starts he’s made since joining the rotation at the end of May. The 23-year-old hurler never completed more than 51 innings in a season at Clemson and he totaled just 94 innings during his first professional season last year. He’s completed six innings in both of his past two outings for the first time in the Majors.
Whether a traditional starter, opener or high-leverage reliever, Strider has the potential to be quite valuable in October, as long as his tank isn’t empty.
Speaking of the playoffs, Anderson has a 1.26 ERA over eight postseason starts. This isn’t the kind of guy who is bothered by big situations or the fact he entered Tuesday having completed less than five innings in three of his four most recent starts. He allowed seven runs over just two innings Thursday in Philadelphia.
“It’s a tough game for anybody to play,” Snitker said. “There’s going to be streaks and stretches where it’s going to mess with you. You’ve just got to grind through it. This was a good night for him.”
Anderson’s line wasn’t a thing of beauty, but five of the eight singles he allowed, including each of the three surrendered in the first inning, had an exit velocity below 83 mph. His four-seamer averaged 94.4 mph, which was his third highest average of the season, and his changeup generated early whiffs and a lot of soft contact.
This was much more like the Anderson the Braves saw over the past few seasons and when he worked into the sixth inning in nine of 10 starts from April 29-June 19.
“Baseball is tough,” Anderson said. “That’s something I discovered early. You trust the guys behind you and make those guys make the plays. Stay out of your own way and good things can happen.”