Though Jair Jurrjens was 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in his first four starts after returning from Triple-A, and Ben Sheets pitched six scoreless innings Sunday against to win his first major league start in two years, the Braves have continued exploring possible trades for a front-line starting pitcher.
Tuesday night served as a reminder why.
Jurrjens was charged with eight runs and eight hits in 3-1/3 innings as the Braves’ seven-game winning streak ended with the thud of a 9-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants in a series opener at Turner Field.
“I didn’t have my command,” said Jurrjens (3-3), who had three walks and one strikeout and saw his ERA soar back to 6.20. “I was battling to get strike 1. They’re a good team, and I made a lot of bad pitches and they got hit…. That was a tough one. That’s a game for us to put behind us.”
The Braves made defensive mistakes — including one by Jurrjens — in addition to their struggles at the plate and on the mound.
“It’s probably one of the ugliest games we’ve played in a while,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose second-place Braves slipped back to 3-1/2 games behind National League East leader Washington after the Nationals beat the Mets.
Leesburg native Buster Posey had three hits and five RBIs for the Giants in the first four innings, including a three-run double off rookie Luis Avilan to cap a six-run fourth inning for an 8-0 lead.
Giants starter Barry Zito (8-6) allowed just three hits in seven innings and improved to 4-0 with a 1.63 ERA in five career starts at Turner Field. The veteran left-hander is 4-1 in six overall starts against Atlanta.
“He’s got that slower-than-slow change-up, the front-door and back-door cutter, the straight one,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. “But we just played sloppy. Sloppy. That’s the word for today, sloppy. We were sloppy on the mound, we were sloppy in the field, we were sloppy at the plate…. It’s disappointing. And nobody was exempt tonight.”
The Braves scored six or more runs five times during their seven-game winning streak, but against Zito they got only one runner past first base until Freddie Freeman’s two-out double in the seventh. Martin Prado’s fourth-inning single was their first hit.
“We just couldn’t get anything going,” second baseman Dan Uggla said. “[Zito] mixes it up. Still got a good curveball. Just kind of picks and picks and picks. He had us in a position where we had to hit his pitch, and he made pitches when he needed to all night. He kept us off balance. Sometimes, like my first at-bat, I had a great count and a good pitch to hit, and I just missed it by a hair. Should have been 2-1 right there. That’s the way the night went.”
Jurrjens had allowed only six earned runs in 25-1/3 innings in his first four starts since returning from a two-month minor league stint. But on Tuesday he reverted to something closer to his early season form, when he had a 9.37 ERA in four April starts before being demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett.
“I think his command … wasn’t as good as we’ve seen it before,” Gonzalez said of Jurrjens, who pitched on four extra days’ rest following the All-Star break. “It just happened to be one of those days, whether it’s the long layoff between starts, but he just wasn’t the same and they took advantage.”
Although the Braves had a 3.00 ERA during the seven-game winning streak, they’ve given up 22 earned runs in 36 innings over their past four games. Sheets’ outing Sunday was the Braves’ only quality start in that four-game stretch. In the other three of their past four games, starters Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Jurrjens have allowed 18 earned runs in 12-2/3 innings.
The eight runs were Jurrjens’ season-high, and it was his second-shortest outing. He lasted three innings (five runs, nine hits) in an April 23 loss against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and was optioned to Gwinnett after the game.
He’d had encouraging performances since returning to the majors, including 7-2/3 innings of three-hit ball at Boston in his first game back. But he has only 11 strikeouts in 28-2/3 innings since he returned, and has allowed 23 hits in 15-1/3 innings over his past three starts.
Jurrjens was victimized early on by sketchy defense and an umpire’s close call, but by the fourth inning the Giants were teeing off. His fastball velocity was down a tick or two from his previous starts, and he plenty of breaking balls that lacked bite in addition to 86-88 mph fastballs that weren’t located well.
“I just know my command wasn’t there,” Jurrjens said. “I can throw hard or throw slow, if I throw it down the middle everybody is going to hit it. It’s not my velocity, it’s just my command.”
He also hurt himself when he failed to cover first base properly on Angel Pagan’s grounder to start the fourth inning, when Jurrjens scrambled to catch first baseman Freddie Freeman’s throw and missed the base with his foot.
The last three runs on his ledger were driven in by Posey against Avilan, after the former Lee County High star drove in a pair of runs against Jurrjens with a double in the first inning and single in the third.
Posey was the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year over Atlanta’s Jason Heyward, who played for Henry County High when it beat Posey and Lee County in a 2005 Georgia state championship series.
Posey missed much of the 2011 season after a major knee injury, but the catcher made the All-Star team again this season. He started at first base Tuesday, where he’s played 15 games this season as the Giants sought ways to keep his bat in the lineup.
He was the first batter faced by Avilan, a left-hander who was brought in after Jurrjens gave up five hits and a walk to the first seven batters of the inning. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez brought in Avilan to face him, even though Posey had a .367 average and 1.022 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties before his bases-clearing double off the rookie.
“Yeah it’s a tough spot to put the young man in,” Gonzalez said of Avilan, who had faced one batter in his major league career before Tuesday. “It’s tough, but I think the kid did a nice job settling down after that, and he gave us a pretty good outing.”
Avilan stayed in for 3-2/3 innings and collected five strikeouts. He was charged with five hits and one run in an impressive second appearance. But the damage was done after the first of those hits, which Posey drove to the left-center gap with the bases loaded.