Three Cuts: Braves’ funk continues with walkoff loss to Cubs

Neither Justin Upton (one RBI on Friday) nor shortstop Andrelton Simmons (one run) could prevent the Cubs from scoring their game-winning run in the 9th inning.

David Banks

In other words, it’s only human nature to incur a slight regression immediately after a prodigious streak falls — even if it’s unconsciously done.

That dropoff factors in the starting rotation (Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana, Alex Wood), which has a middling ERA of 4.48 over the last six outings — including Wood’s so-so effort from Friday, allowing four runs over 5 1/3 innings.

Wood (six strikeouts) actually looked strong early on, retiring the first six Cubs hitters, without incident. But a Chris Coghlan double in the 3rd (and subsequent steal) launched a two-run inning for Chicago, sparked by a walk to Mike Olt (one of baseball’s worst-hitting regulars), a textbook safety-squeeze bunt from pitcher Jake Arrieta and a Justin Ruggiano RBI single.

(The journeyman Ruggiano would strike again in the 9th, collecting a walk-off RBI single to win the game.)

Three innings later, Wood encountered more trouble, surrendering hits to the Cubs’ all-star duo of Anthony Rizzo (double) and Starlin Castro (right), before inexplicably plunking catcher Wellington Castillo on an 0-2 count.

After that, a Coghlan RBI single and Luis Valbuena RBI walk (with the bases loaded) enabled two more Cubs runs to score — completing Wood’s tally for the day.

That inning might have been worse, but reliever Shae Simmons eventually settled down to register two outs to close the inning.

For what it’s worth … the rookie Simmons (zero runs over 1.2 innings on Friday), who profiles as a young Craig Kimbrel, has a 0.96 ERA for the season.

In the big picture, the Atlanta starters — particularly Minor and Teheran — need to buckle down and finish strong … or a road trip that seemed like an easy-breezy run at 6-1 or 5-2, on paper, may end up as the low point in a relatively problem-free first half of the season.

Well, the scoring was a little more plentiful on Friday, but neither team was consistently raking the ball, with the Braves mustering only six hits and the Cubs collecting seven.

Jason Heyward (two doubles) was the only Atlanta player to register multiple hits. In fact, his leadoff double in the 9th put the Braves in prime position to tie the game and seemingly force extra innings.

Atlanta Braves: Next Up

On three consecutive pitches after the Heyward double, Chris Johnson lined out (leaping catch from Starlin Castro), Tommy La Stella grounded out and rookie Christian Bethancourt laced an RBI single up the middle, temporarily knotting the game at 4.

Incidentally, Bethancourt escaped serious injury early in the game, when a foul tip ricocheted off the side of his neck — slightly underneath the mask. It was a jarring play to experience — and watch on TV.

In fact, it’s a credit to Bethancourt he even remained in the game. That play may have singlehandedly dissuaded young baseball fans from aspiring to be a catcher someday.

(Kidding … since most catchers are inherently crazy.)

In the fourth inning, with the Braves trailing 2-0, Jordan Schafer (one run,  three steals) opened things with a walk and subsequent steal. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons then doubled to right field, moving Schafer to third base.

Freddie Freeman’s RBI groundout (scoring Schafer) then set the stage for Upton and perhaps the hardest-swinging, shortest-distance RBI of his career — a classic cue ball that awkwardly spun off the bat and barely into the glove of Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who couldn’t charge the spinner and throw Simmons out at home.

Instead, Arietta put his entire focus into handling the twisting ball before retiring Upton at first.

It’s funny, Upton could take a thousand more cuts in that same circumstance at Wrigley Field — before the rains came — and he might never duplicate the absurd result of a 12-foot RBI on such a powerful swing.

Of course, the cue-ball-RBI swing couldn’t match that of Upton’s supremely hard cut in the 8th, when the Braves were trailing 4-3 with two runners aboard.

These were the mathematical paces of the division leaders, heading into Friday’s action:

In the West, the Dodgers are certainly enjoying Clayton Kershaw’s Koufax-esque run through the majors (last six starts: 6-0, 0.38 ERA, 0.63 WHIP, 62/6 K-BB, .145 opponents’ batting average), but L.A. needs more pitching depth — outside of Kershaw, Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73 ERA, 127/22 K-BB), Josh Beckett — to effectively pull away from the Giants (50-42).

As for the Nationals and Braves, they’re on the precipice of a two-horse race in the NL East, meaning both clubs might forgo the chase for the National League’s best record and simply bear down for a stretch run that includes nine more head-to-head encounters.

In Washington’s case, the club will be criss-crossing the country for a nine-game trip from July 21-30 (Denver, Cincinnati, Miami), a road swing that immediately follows a crucial home series against the Brewers (next weekend).

So, it’s imperative for the Nationals to at least hold their ground until August, a month that begins with a lengthy home stand and then a huge series at Turner Field (Aug. 8-10).