The Wednesday loss bothered me more than the one that preceded it. On Tuesday the Yankees had to do something outrageous — six eighth-inning runs in the span of six batters, with an historic grand slam included — to prevail. On Wednesday they had only to stand back and watch as the home side did everything except win.
The Braves mustered 16 baserunners Wednesday night. They managed two runs. The Braves left 13 men on base, at least one in every inning. They managed 12 hits, at least one in every inning except the seventh. They were 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, and one of the two was the rookie Andrelton Simmons’ bunt-for-a-hit single with Jason Heyward on third and one out, which Fredi Gonzalez conceded was “an aggressive mistake.”
This was a game that was harder to lose than to win, but lose the Braves did. They were swept in a series in which they made one error and outhit the Yankees 27-24. “We played good,” Brian McCann said, and that was the scary part.
This was a series that came down to little things. A night after Alex Rodriguez barely fouled off one 3-2 pitch from Jonny Venters and drove the next over the left-field fence, Martin Prado sought to squeeze home the tying run in the bottom of the eight. (This bunt had been called from the bench.) Instead Prado fouled Cody Eppley’s pitch to the screen. Two pitches later the Braves’ leading hitter grounded into a double play. One foul-off led to four runs, the other to two killing outs.
Said Gonzalez: “We lost three games, and we played two really good games and 7 1/3 of another.”
A professional athlete expects to lose on a bad night and to win on a good one. It’s losing on the good nights that leads to doubt, and doubt in a team is never a good thing. The Braves have lost four in a row after winning six straight. Even with an eight-wins-in-nine-games run mixed in, this team has lost 13 of 21. From 1 1/2 games ahead in the National League East on May 20, the Braves have fallen five games behind Washington — their largest deficit of the season.
Until the six-game winning streak, the Braves had hit better than they pitched. In this series they pitched better than they hit. They scored six runs, half of those coming off Matt Diaz’s RBI double against CC Sabathia on Tuesday, in 27 innings. For the series they were 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position, and only one of the three hits actually generated a run.
Said McCann, whose fifth-inning home run was the Braves’ only hit of consequence: “We couldn’t get the big hit.”
Tim Hudson pitched well, but not well enough. Derek Jeter led off the game with a double in the gap and scored on A-Rod’s single up the middle. The Yankees made that lead stand until McCann hit his homer. But Hudson couldn’t hold his advantage long enough to get an out. Jeter — yep, him again — led off the sixth with a single to right, and Curtis Granderson hoisted a Hudson cutter inside the foul pole in right. “It cut the middle of the plate in half,” Hudson said, sarcasm dripping.
Said Gonzalez: “We had a lot of good things [in the series] — other than a win.”
It’s not as if the Braves haven’t beaten good teams this season. They took two of three in Dodger Stadium and two of three in Tropicana Field, and they swept the Marlins in Miami at a time when the Fish were flying. But the determinant in this series was a subtle difference in class: The Yankees didn’t do a lot but they aced the essential stuff, while the Braves saved their worst for the worst possible moments.
Gonzalez again: “It seemed like we were one pitch away the whole series.”
That has to nag at any club, to be so close and to walk away on the dustbin end of a sweep. It sounds weird, given that June has seen the Braves’ longest winning streak of the season, but this is a team headed the wrong direction. Even good teams know they’re going to lose 60 or so games in a season — that’s just the nature of baseball. Far more galling are the losses that come for no reason. Like Wednesday’s.
Is there time enough for the Braves to right themselves? Sure. Ninety-nine games remain. But these wild mood swings — the Braves have already had three losing streaks of four or more games — have to subside. The hitting has to pick back up, and the surge in starting pitching has to continue.
“I think this club is ready to make another run,” Gonzalez said, and maybe it is. But those words would have carried more oomph had his Braves managed to beat the Yankees just once.
By Mark Bradley