Is Folty becoming the ace the Baby Braves need?

ATLANTA -- While the baseball world starts to zero in on Cobb County, Georgia, as the locale for a great emerging story in the 2018 season, the Atlanta Braves almost to a man stick to the vanilla mantra uttered by manager Brian Snitker on a near daily basis.

"Today is our biggest game of the season," Snitker loves to say. "Then tomorrow's will be as well."

It's a modest variation of the "we play them one game at a time" cliche made famous in "Bull Durham" about 30 years ago. The thing is, the young Braves seem to have turned that cliche into a mission statement.

Day by day, the Braves are gathering momentum, and doing it in different ways. For most of the season, it has been one of the National League's most prolific offenses leading the way. But this week, during Atlanta's biggest homestand in years, the SunTrust Park Braves have leaned on an old formula that once made the Turner Field Braves famous: dominant starting pitching.

No one has been more dominant than big righty Mike Foltynewicz was on Friday. Not this season. Not in many seasons.

Foltynewicz throttled the Washington Nationals on two hits, striking out 11 and going the distance in a 4-0 victory before a large, raucous crowd at baseball's newest cathedral. It may have been a career-making performance for the man they call Folty (perhaps for expediency as much as affection), who is one of the emergent starting pitchers of the young season.

Foltynewicz enjoyed his first career complete game and shutout in the win, outdueling All-Star Stephen Strasburg. He became the first Braves pitcher to have a double-digit strikeout performance in a complete-game whitewash since Greg Maddux did it on May 2, 2001.

"First time," Foltynewicz said of his nine innings. "I'm just very energized still. I feel like go back out there and at least get one more [inning]. But it was just a great crowd, great energy."

There's more. Folty's game score was 93, easily a career best. It's the second-best game score of the season behind the 100 that Houston's Gerrit Cole put up in a 16-strikeout, one-hit shutout. It was Atlanta's top game score since that aforementioned Maddux performance more than 17 years ago.

Think about those facts just laid out, but rearranged in slightly different way. Here are the upstart Braves, trying to validate their hot start against the behemoths of their division. It's as big as a late-May, early-June series could be for Atlanta. The Nationals entered the matchup on a six-game win streak, before being beaten by Braves lefty Sean Newcomb on Thursday. With Strasburg taking the ball, Atlanta needed a big performance from Foltynewicz to keep the momentum.

So what does he give them? The best Atlanta start in more than 17 years. Not bad.

"You have to try to match those guys," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "They are the cream of the crop in our game. When you're going in tonight, [you know] this is going to be a rough ride for us. We kind of hung around and it was great that Folty kind of gave us an opportunity to eventually scratch something out."

Foltynewicz had to be that good because Strasburg matched him zero for zero for six innings, while the tension in the crowd mounted. A great thing about pitching duels is the slow burn you feel from the crowd. For a few innings, it's generally pretty mellow because nothing is happening. But at a certain point, something clicks and they realize, 'Hey, nothing has happened and we're in the seventh inning!"

That's why when Nick Markakis cracked a leadoff single off Strasburg to start the Atlanta seventh, a hit that generated a little more thunder than it otherwise might have. Then the Braves pushed the envelope, starting Markakis on a 3-2 count -- not a risk-free decision with the nasty Strasburg on the hill -- as Suzuki singled to left. With the head start, Markakis easily reached third. From there he scored his 1,000th career run when Nationals first-sacker Matt Adams literally booted a little dribbler off the bat of Johan Camargo.

With the first run in the books, that put the pressure on Strasburg to limit the damage. At that point, Folty had retired 20 straight hitters, only one of which got a ball out of the infield. Needing to hold Atlanta to that unearned tally, Strasburg got Preston Tucker looking.

That brought up shortstop Dansby Swanson with runners on first and second. Swanson has been scuffling at the plate of late, having hit just .189 since April 19, but he's not the guy you want to face with runners in scoring position, as he demonstrated by whacking a hanging curveball over the left-field bullpen for a three-run homer.

"Proud of everybody," Swanson said. "Definitely a team effort. Folty threw the heck out of it. He was awesome."

Swanson always talks like that. He wouldn't pat himself on the back if he were imitating Bugs Bunny in that cartoon in which he plays all nine positions at the same time. He also wouldn't elaborate on what he was looking for from Strasburg in that spot.

"See the ball, hit the ball," was all Swanson would say, though he said it with a wry smile.

Despite the struggles overall, Swanson is hitting .351 with runners in scoring position. Strasburg was done one batter later, leaving because of a cramp in his left wrist.

"[Swanson has] got that knack," Snitker said. "He battled and battled and, man, [Strasburg] was really good, too, tonight."

Atlanta's four-run rally left the spotlight to Foltynewicz all by himself. He issued a leadoff walk in the eighth, his only free pass of the night, but still faced the minimum the rest of the way. According to Statcast, he touched 98.7 miles per hour, and he did that on his second-to-last pitch of the night. With his last pitch, No. 106, he struck out Bryce Harper with a slider.

"That was big," Snitker said. "I thought after the eighth, he regrouped and got really nasty. His stuff was still really good. Everything was so good. The location was so good and crisp. It seemed like he was just under control the whole game."

It was the first complete game for an Atlanta hurler since Julio Teheran did it on June 19, 2016 -- just shy of two years ago.

The game marked the third straight contest an Atlanta starter has gone seven innings, which prior to that had occurred just five times all season. Teheran did it against the Mets on Wednesday, followed by Newcomb on Thursday. Then Foltynewicz became the first Braves starter to record an out after the seventh inning this season.

"It's a good thing when they start competin' against each other," Snitker said. "After what Nuke did last night, Folty right now, it's good. It's good for these guys to experience what they did tonight."

The Atlanta rotation is gathering steam at just the right time. With wins in the first two games of the four-game set against Washington, the Braves have taken 1½-game lead over the Nats in the NL East. More importantly, the Braves are showing the baseball world that they aren't going to shrink from the big moments.

"[To do that] against one of our division rivals, one of the better teams in baseball, and this atmosphere and the time we're at during the season, it was a big win for us," Foltynewicz said. "I was just trying to get that momentum for this team to go into the weekend and then the road trip."

As for Foltynewicz, he lowered his ERA to 2.22, a mark that ranks in the top 10 across the majors. Maybe it's too soon to call him an ace, but he's put up a 0.56 ERA with 37 strikeouts over his past five starts. It's hard to argue with the trend, one that is winning over Braves fans start by start.

"It was a packed house when I went out there to warm up and you could tell it could kind of be the playoff atmosphere," Foltynewicz said. "One of the loudest times out there was in the last two hitters, when I got two strikes on [Trea] Turner and Harper. I got goosebumps myself out there. The fans were electric tonight."

At the start of the game, a young girl was given the task of reading the Braves' starting lineup as the crowd watched her on the big scoreboard in center field. She did a bang-up job of it too, until she came the last name on the list, the ninth batter: Foltynewicz. She struggled with that one.

Maybe next time she can just call him what his teammates call him, a name that is rapidly making its way around the National League. Just call him Folty.