Three Cuts: Braves' bullpen falters in extra-inning loss to Diamondbacks
JUN 08, 2014 1:30a ET
The Atlanta Braves held two late leads against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday night, but their bullpen could not put the game away, blowing two saves in a 4-3 loss in 11 innings. Here are three observations from the Diamondbacks' walk-off victory:
1. Working against five relievers in the final four frames, the Diamondbacks' offense never let up
One night removed from Craig Kimbrel breaking the franchise record for career saves, the Braves' typically strong bullpen could not come up with a final answer for Arizona's lineup. That includes Kimbrel, whom Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez handed the ball to with a one-run lead entering the ninth. He couldn't hang on, though, walking Ender Inciarte -- a .186 hitter on the year -- before allowing the game-tying RBI double to pinch-hitter Aaron Hill.
Kimbrel's third blown save of the campaign sent the game to extras.
"He's human. And I told him that in the dugout," Gonzalez said of Kimbrel. "It usually starts that way, right? Every inning, especially late in the game, it starts so innocently with a walk or a mishandled ball, and next thing you know you're staring the barrel of a potential run scoring."
The Braves did find renewed hope in the 10th inning. With two outs and nobody on, Jason Heyward, perhaps the most dangerous bat in the Atlanta lineup at the moment, stepped into the box looking to extend his hitting streak to 11 games. And he did it -- in style. He took reliever Addison Reed into the right-field seats for the potential game-winner, erasing the tie that Kimbrel allowed and giving the Braves bullpen new life. It was Heward's seventh home run of the season and he's now hit safely in 25 of the 26 games. But that was final positive of the night.
To protect the 3-2 margin, Gonzalez brought in righty Anthony Varvaro, who he had warming up in the bullpen when Heyward hit his two-out homer. Varvaro has been one of the team's most productive relief arms this season, but he rarely comes in for save opporunities -- usually those are left to Kimbrel, David Carpenter or, recently, rookie Shae Simmons.
Varvaro was almost completely ineffective on this night. After striking out '13 NL MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt for the first out, catcher Miguel Montero homered to left field, a solo shot that re-knotted the score and erasing what would be the Braves' last lead of the game. Varvaro was pulled one batter later.
The Braves mixed in Luis Avilan for one out before bringing in Carpenter, who eventually gave up the game-winning run off a Gerardo Parra bloop single. In total, one of the best bullpens in baseball gave up three runs in the final four frames. Overall, the Diamondbacks tallied 12 hits and four walks.
As Gonzalez pointed out, the Diamondbacks' closer did not fare much better thanks to Heyward, but it's still another hiccup for a Braves unit that has been fairly mediocre over the past two weeks or so. There are question marks all over the place, from Jordan Walden and Jonny Venters (rehab stints) to Avilan and Carpenter (poor numbers). There's still a certain comfort level given the quality of arms -- Simmons has been an excellent addition and Kimbrel remains a dominant force -- but at this point, any pitching issue for the Braves is only going to get magnified due to the amount of low-scoring, close games they play.
"It's tough to convert one-run saves. The other team, you make a mistake here or there, and they put a run on you," Gonzalez said. " ... It's hard to close out games, especially in the major leagues with one run."
2. Sporting a fresh new haircut, Santana kicks June off with a fresh start
The month of May provided Ervin Santana with plenty of frustration. After exploding onto the scene with three excellent starts in his first month in a Braves uniform, Month No. 2 presented some problems: Santana's ERA ballooned from 1.95 to 4.10, his strikeout numbers dropped and his walk rate was nearly twice as high. There was one standout performance in his six May starts, a seven-inning shutout shutout of the Cubs.
Still, as the highest-paid arm on staff, he was arguably the team's most ineffective pitcher for the month.
Santana, sans his trademark dreadlocks, got back on track in Arizona.
Facing off against a high-scoring offense and pitching on seven day's rest, he avoided trouble through seven innings of work. He would have had the opportunity to hold the Diamondbacks scoreless were it not for some fielding errors behind him, and though he only struck out one batter on the night, he scattered his six hits allowed and gave up just the one unearned run. It's his third outing this season that he hasn't allowed an earned run, his first since May 10. Gonzalez called the performance "terrific."
"We got him in a little trouble with some mishandling of the baseball, but he got himself out of it," Gonzalez said.
As long as young left-hander Alex Wood remains in the bullpen, there's going to be speculation as to when he re-enters the rotation and who the odd starter out will be. But with Santana signing to a one-year, $14 million contract right before the season started, he's in the rotation to stay. I'd say same goes for Julio Teheran and Mike Minor, leaving any potential move to be limited to relatively inexpensive veteran newcomers Aaron Harang and Gavin Floyd. So getting Santana, who is in it for the long haul this season, back on track was a significant plus for this team.
With the way this offense is producing, they'll need every arm on the 25-man roster at his best.
3. Dan Uggla's return to the field offered zero utility
This was a predictably forgettable outing for the displaced Braves second baseman, who has started just four games in the past month. If there's anything more difficult than breaking out of an awful two-season slump, it's trying to do it without regular playing time.
Uggla entered the game hitting .178/.298/.340 in his past 664 plate appearances dating back to the start of the 2013 season. Couple that with the fact that he finished dead last among all qualified players in defense runs saved last season and it was bound to be difficult for the 34-year-old to hop off the bench and contribute, especially not at the pace that his replacement, rookie standout Tommy La Stella, has set with five multi-hit performances in his first eight career games.
And so it was that Uggla experienced problems with both the bat and glove on Saturday night.
First and foremost, Uggla's defense cost the Braves dearly in the early going. The first of his two errors on the night, a throwing error on a double-play attempt, allowed Diamondbacks third baseman Martin Prado to score the game's first run. In such a low-scoring game that was extended into extra innings, that one hurt. His second error did not lead to a run, but it did lead to shortstop Didi Gregorius reaching second base with zero outs and the middle of the order. Santana worked out of the jam with three groundouts.
(Give it to Uggla, though. Despite a history of ineffectiveness and a particularly bad night with the glove, he delievered with a big-time defensive play in the bottom of the 11th inning, ranging over toward first base on a slow bouncing ball to scoop it into first baseman Freddie Freeman's glove in the nick of time. At the time, it was a crucial out for a Braves bullpen that struggled piecing them together. It took a replay challenge to earn the out, but the veteran deserves credit there.)
As for the bat, his 0-for-4 final line pretty much sums it up. He ended two innings with runners on base and his weighted runs created (39 wRC+) is now firmly in the bottom 10 of all MLB players with at least 100 plate appearances. He's hitting .169/.244/.246 in 131 plate appearances this season. Perhaps worst of all for Uggla: By the end of the game, La Stella was waiting in the batter's box to bat in his place in the 11th.
Do not expect La Stella's playing time to dwindle any time soon.