CHICAGO — The Atlanta Braves clinched the NL East title Sunday, and then rode two homers by Andrelton Simmons to a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
The game was in the sixth inning when Washington lost 4-2 to Miami, giving the Braves their first division crown in eight years. There were a few high-fives in Atlanta’s dugout when the Marlins won, and a couple of Braves fans did the tomahawk chop in the stands.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez high-fived a fan as he made his way to the dugout after a lineup change, and the celebration really picked up when Craig Kimbrel finished for his major league-best 49th save. The Braves poured out of the dugout and bullpen and jumped in a circle near the mound before retreating to the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field to continue the party.
Simmons hit a solo drive in the fourth and a two-run shot in the eighth, giving him 17 homers on the year.
Simmons’ second career multihomer game was more than enough run support for Julio Teheran (13-8), who struck out seven over six innings of one-run ball.
The Cubs had a chance to tie it when they put runners on second and third with two outs in the fifth, but Teheran managed to escape the jam despite a solid at-bat by Starlin Castro. Teheran needed 11 pitches to get Castro for a swinging strikeout, preserving Atlanta’s 3-1 lead.
Freddie Freeman also hit a two-run homer for the Braves, who have won three of four. Freeman went got three hits and is batting .356 (26 for 73) with six homers and 17 RBIs in his last 20 games.
Freeman went deep in the first against Edwin Jackson (8-17), who allowed three runs and eight hits in six-plus innings. The right-hander leads the majors with 17 losses in his first season with the Cubs.
Atlanta is headed to the playoffs for the second consecutive year and third time in four seasons. But it’s the first division title for the Braves since 2005, when they won 90 games and then lost to Houston in the division series.
The Braves were the NL’s top wild card a year ago, trying to make one more playoff run for Chipper Jones in the third baseman’s final season. Those hopes were quickly dashed when they committed three errors in a 6-3 home loss to St. Louis in their only game of the 2012 postseason.
They won’t have to worry about the wild-card game this year. The only question now is home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, with Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis in the mix for the league’s best record.
It’s quite the accomplishment for Gonzalez and the Braves, who were beset by injuries for much of the year. Veteran catcher Brian McCann missed the first month following off-season shoulder surgery. The outfield of Jason Heyward and brothers Justin and B.J. Upton all missed time. Second baseman Dan Uggla had eye surgery and pitcher Tim Hudson broke his right ankle in July, shelving the right-hander for the rest of the season.
Atlanta kept going the way it often does – with outstanding pitching. Teheran, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen helped anchor the rotation, while Kimbrel led the Braves’ shutdown bullpen, which overcame injuries to left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to once again be among the majors’ best relief corps.
Of course, the lineup had its share of key performances. Freeman blossomed into one of the majors’ best first basemen, unheralded rookie Evan Gattis stepped up and Chris Johnson proved to be a more than adequate replacement for Jones at third. The free-swinging Braves lead the NL with 176 homers and are among the league leaders in strikeouts as well.