If you check the standings, the Braves are still OK — four games behind Washington in the National League East, nicely positioned in the wild-card chase. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad:
If you watch them play, you see a team in trouble.
A homestand that began 2-0 wound up 3-6, with a week on the road — first the Bronx, then Boston — coming. “There are a lot of guys in here frustrated right now,” Chipper Jones said Sunday.
June began with the Braves wondering about their starting pitchers. The rotation has stabilized — although a rotation awaiting an MRI on its best arm can’t quite be described as stable — but now the losses are coming hand over fist. Randall Delgado yielded two runs over eight innings Sunday, and it mattered not.
This wasn’t one of those games where the Braves left a zillion runners at second and third. They pushed only two runners into scoring position, both of those in a third inning that came undone when Delgado bunted into a 1-6-4 double play. Contrast this with the Baltimore sixth, when pitcher Wei-Yin Chen sacrificed Steve Pearce to third. Delgado began to pitch from the windup, whereupon manager Fredi Gonzalez whistled to warm Delgado to work from the stretch, whereupon the addled rookie halted his delivery and balked Pearce home.
If a guy pitches a one-hitter against you, you take your loss and tip your hat. (Jason Hammel had done just that Saturday night. Sure enough, Gonzalez said: “You’ve got to tip your hat to him.”) To lose another winnable game in a week that saw three winnable games lost gives greater pause. Are the Braves turning into one of those clubs that does just enough to lose?
Said Jones: “There’s a lot of pride in here. We’re going to go up there [to Yankee Stadium] looking to win a baseball game.”
Then this: “The only thing we need to do is to avoid pressing.”
Which is hard to do when you’re losing. The Braves hit into double plays in innings 1, 2 and 3. (First Jones, then Jason Heyward, then Delgado’s failed sacrifice.) That did suggest a batting order that was getting antsy. But then they came to the game’s final out, when Gonzalez thought too far ahead.
The right-handed Matt Diaz, who was hitting .120 against righties, was allowed to bat against Orioles closer Jim Johnson. With left-handed hitters Brian McCann and Eric Hinske available, why not deploy one? Gonzalez’s reasoning: He planned to pinch-hit McCann for David Ross if both Diaz and Heyward reached, and if Hinske had been used in Diaz’s slot there was a chance the pitcher’s spot could roll around with the tying run at third and nobody to hit except Tim Hudson, who’s a pitcher.
The counterpoint: If Diaz makes an out, all points are moot. And it should be noted that Gonzalez had sacrificed the left-handed Juan Francisco in the eighth not because Jack Wilson is a better hitter — Wilson isn’t a better hitter than many people in the big leagues — but because he hits right-handed and the O’s had just summoned lefty Troy Patton. (Wilson popped to first.)
The impression — heck, the reality — was that the manager of a team that had lost five of six suffered a sixth loss in seven games without using either of the two left-handed hitters on his bench against a righty closer. Had Diaz ripped a single (or drawn a walk), we would applaud Gonzalez’s patience. Instead Diaz whiffed, and his final swing was as meek as the rationale that put him in that spot.
This isn’t to suggest that Gonzalez is overmatched or that his team has stopped playing for him. He’s a solid baseball man, and there has been little to suggest his men aren’t trying. But these past four weeks — the Braves have lost 15 of 24, and that’s with a six-game winning streak mixed in — have put a hitch in this team’s swagger. First the Braves weren’t pitching well enough, and now they’ve stopped hitting.
“We blew a couple of four-run leads [on the homestand],” Jones said, “and those would have gone a long way toward having people not take a loss like today’s so hard.”
Add two wasted leads to the losses-for-no-reason that closed the sets against the Yankees and the Orioles, and you have a well-pitched-but-wasted homestand. (And with Brandon Beachy out, there’s no guarantee the starting pitching will be this good again anytime soon.) It’s still too early to say the Braves’ season teeters on the brink, but it’s not too early to suggest they need to stop losing winnable games.
By Mark Bradley