After two years away from baseball, pitcher Ben Sheets’ first two weeks with the Braves had been rather remarkable. The magic ended in the first inning Wednesday night against Miami.
The Marlins scored three runs before Sheets recorded the second out in a 4-2 loss that snapped the Braves’ seven-game winning streak.
“It stinks when you’re riding a long winning streak and the first inning I gave them the momentum right out the gate,” Sheets said. “The momentum that we earned over seven games.”
After allowing just one run and 13 hits in 18 innings over his first three starts, Sheets (3-1) gave up four runs (three earned) and 11 hits in 6-2/3 innings against the Marlins, with one walk and eight strikeouts.
The Braves went 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position and left nine on base in losing for just the sixth time in their past 23 games.
“The first inning was the tough one,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, describing a bloop hit and two groundball singles. “We gave up five hits in the first. A couple of balls, the one Carlos Lee hit — it was a grenade behind first base, we can’t really defend it anywhere. That was an RBI and a couple balls got through the infield, but other than that I thought [Sheets] did a nice job.”
Outfielder Reed Johnson had two hits in his Braves debut after coming from the Chicago Cubs in a Monday trade. Braves shortstop Paul Janish had two hits including an RBI double, and made a spectacular diving catch in left field that’s likely to show up on highlight reels for some time.
The pitching line did seem worse than the actual performance by Sheets. Five of the first six batters collected singles, including a bunt, Lee’s bloop to right field, and a Greg Dobbs hit that caromed off Sheets’ glove. The latter two hits drove in runs, as did Bryan Petersen’s sharp single to right field for a 3-0 lead.
“I’m not going to say they hit bloopers; they got hits,” said Sheets, who went deeper into the game than he had in his previous starts and threw 104 pitches, 10 more than his previous season high. “I felt good. I needed to find a way to nip that first inning in the bud. I think if I just fielded my position I may have had a shot. That ball’s a liner back to me; I think Dobbs hit it. I feel like that ball’s very catchable and I should have probably caught it. I just kind of froze up. I couldn’t really move.”
Sheets was out of baseball for nearly two years, uncertain if he’d ever pitch again after complicated elbow surgery in 2010. The Braves signed him to a minor league contract a month ago, and after two minor league starts he pitched 12 scoreless innings in his first two big-league game and gave up one run in six innings of his third start.
The Braves, who had trailed after only one inning in the first five games of the homestand, trailed all the way Wednesday in the third game of a four-game series.
“I don’t know what happened today, man,” said Braves left fielder Martin Prado, who went 0-for-5, grounded into two double plays(including a game-ender, and made a sixth-inning error that let in a run. “I don’t know what to say. I guess we had opportunities to score a couple of runs, but we didn’t take advantage of a couple of pitches that we probably could have hit hard somewhere. It didn’t happen.
“Ben Sheets threw the ball well. He kept us in the game. We just didn’t score. We didn’t score enough runs to come back. We had a chance to tie the game and we didn’t.”
Marlins pitcher Wade LeBlanc, in his first major league start of the season after 11 July relief appearances, limited the Braves to five hits and one run in 4-1/3 innings.
Janish had a two-out RBI double in the second inning and Dan Uggla had a two-out RBI double down the left-field line in the sixth, and each time a Braves baserunner held at third. Sheets grounded out to end the second inning with two in scoring position after the Janish double, and Janish flied out to end the sixth with two in scoring position after Uggla’s double.
Freddie Freeman lined out to right-center with the bases loaded to end the seventh, after Johnson’s one-out single and a pair of two-out walks by Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones raised the hopes of a small crowd of 18,133. Freeman had three hits.
“We weren’t very good with runners on base even though we hit the ball hard,” Gonzalez said. “I thought Freeman’s ball was going to split the gap. He was right there. I thought Sheets did a terrific job. Longest outing of the year. Pushed him out there in the seventh inning and he did a nice job.”
Sheets recorded 10 outs in a 10-batter span after Petersen’s first-inning hit. Lee was the only batter to reach in that stretch, and he was erased after his one-out single in the third when Dobbs grounded into a double play.
Sheets struck out the first two batters in the fourth inning before Scott Cousins’ infield hit that first baseman Freeman got his glove on but couldn’t field cleanly as he went to his right. LeBlanc followed with a double down the left-field line, the first extra-base hit of his career. Prado misplayed it and Cousins scored on the error for a 4-1 lead.
The Braves had one last gasp in the ninth after Michael Bourn drew a pinch-hit walk to lead off. Brian McCann came to bat next as a pinch-hitter, after hitting nine homers in his past 18 games. McCann struck out looking, and Prado grounded into a game-ending double play.
“We didn’t execute some routine plays,” Prado said. “I missed that ball in the outfield and they scored a run. The main thing is, we didn’t take advantage of opportunities to score. When you don’t tie the game, you feel pressure at the end of the game, looking for a homer in that situation. It’s hard.
“We’re just going to come back tomorrow and come back at it, start a winning streak again.”
The Braves had posteed a 1.43 ERA and outscored opponents 40-11 during their seven-game winning streak, allowing two or fewer runs in each of the last six games of the streak.