Three Cuts: Braves’ miscues lead to Red Sox series sweep

The Boston Red Sox scored three runs in the eighth and ninth innings to beat the Atlanta Braves 4-3 on Thursday night.

In a disappointing finish representative of the Atlanta Braves’ four-game series against the Boston Red Sox, the Braves coughed up a late two-run lead behind a bevy of errors and defensive miscues, losing 4-3 as the defending World Series champs completed their sweep. With the loss, the Braves’ divisional lead disappeared as they head to Miami looking for answers. Here are three observations from the game:

For the second time in the past three days, the Braves bullpen — yes, that strong Braves bullpen that has been such an unwavering weapon for manager Fredi Gonzalez during his tenure — blew a lead to the Boston Red Sox. For the third time in the four-game series, the Braves relinquished the lead during the second half of a ballgame. But this time around, they certainly didn’t receive any help from their typically-solid defense.

The final result: a humbling series sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox, a team that entered the matchup having lost 10 straight games, to help keep the defending World Series champs kicking in the AL East and nixing any chance Atlanta had to build up a NL East division lead. In fact, that NL East lead has disappeared completely: the 28-25 Braves are now tied with the Marlins atop the division, three games ahead of the Nationals. It’s not a terrible spot to be in, but it’s worse than the alternative of building up a sizable early lead over the Nationals (assuming, for what it’s worth, that the Jose Fernandez-less Marlins will not be contending for the division crown come September).

As miscue after miscue poured in during the eighth and ninth innings, culminating in a game-ending error as Chris Johnson’s throw to Tommy La Stella for a force out at second base missed its mark (not a great throw, not a great catch) and allowed Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to score, it apparently became clear to Gonzalez that his team is not in a very good place right now. His team is now 11-16 in May and inching closer to .500 overall.

"We need to get better. We need to win those one-run games, those two-run games," Gonzalez said. "You never like to lose ballgames, but to lose them like that, it’s really not good."

The strange thing, at least on Thursday night, was that these are strengths of this Braves team. It ranked top-10 in team defensive runs saved, and yet there was Johnson, La Stella, B.J. and Justin Upton (three of the four, admittedly, not very strong fielders) misplaying balls in both the infield and outfield. Boston captilized on its free outs. The Braves ranked top-five in bullpen WAR, and yet there was David Carpenter and Craig Kimbrel being charged with runs — albeit partial victims of the defensive problems. It’s a trend that plagued this team during the sweep, the failure to make key plays when needed.

"(Our relievers were) making good pitches at the end. Balls are just dropping in, couldn’t get an out," starter Mike Minor said of the final innings. "And then later on — you know, they’re a tough team. I feel like every four games we played them, they battled back every time. I think it’s kinda expected out of them, to battle back. And (it’s) just unfortunate for us."

Gonzalez was a little more harsh.

"We didn’t handle the baseball. We didn’t handle the baseball in the last two innings and it came back and bit us," he said. "We kept fumbling with it. The team hasn’t done that, it’s not like us to do that a lot. And those last two innings of the ballgame, you know, you gotta take care of the baseball. And we didn’t do that. … It’s a tough way to lose. It’s a tough one to swallow, really."

With the way the Red Sox, with a lineup that has enjoyed greater success against lefties this season, got to Braves’ right-handers at different points in earlier games during this series — whether it be starter Ervin Santana, reliever Anthony Varvaro or even super closer Craig Kimbrel to end Thursday night’s game — it would have been understandable if Minor suffered a similar fate. The Red Sox entered the game with a weighted runs created (wRC+) that was 15 points higher against left-handers this season.

Minor wasn’t about to be part of that, though.

For the second outing in May, Minor looked like the pitcher that made him the most productive arm in Atlanta’s rotation last season, leading all pitchers with a 3.4 WAR. And while things have not exactly gone smoothly for him during his first month of action since starting the season on the disabled list (after all, he was performing below replacement level up until he took the mound in Fenway), he was in good form through seven innings of work on Thursday. It was not his best start of the season to date — his 6 2/3 shutout innings with six strikeouts against the Giants takes that cake — but it’s easily the runner-up.

"Mixed it up pretty good with Gattis. A couple balls off the wall — I could maybe take those back," Minor said of his performance in the no-decision. "But other than that, it was pretty good."

Minor held off the Boston lineup all night, scattering seven hits without a single walk while allowing just one run on a Brock Holt double in the fifth. He added three strikeouts while lowering his ERA (3.41) and FIP (4.26).

As disappointed as Gonzalez seemed in the outcome, he left no doubt as to Minor’s performance: "Mike was terrific."

This is still not vintage value Minor, though. His main problem is that his strikeouts remain low (7.3 per nine innings), and while he held the Red Sox without a walk or home run in this outing, he could probably stand to lower both rates moving forward. Obviously, a few more outings like this and he will. Minor has mentioned that he is continuing to work his way toward going deeper into games, and with this being his longest start of 2014, it looks like he’s making strides in that department. (Usually handing the ball off to Carpenter and Kimbrel is a pretty safe bet).

The 26-year-old did mention, though, that if he could have been more efficient with his 113 pitches, he could have gotten through the eighth inning as well.

"I think it was the fifth or sixth where I started off the inning 2-0, and then the next batter 1-0, 2-0, something like that. I need to attack those guys," Minor said. "I think there was an inning where (Dustin) Pedroia helped me out with the first pitch, he grounded out to third. Because that inning I looked up and saw 82 pitches and I think it might have been the sixth or something like that, and I felt like I needed to get some quick outs."

With Alex Wood in the bullpen for the time being — or, given the production of Gavin Floyd and Aaron Harang, for the foreseeable future — Minor remains the only southpaw in the starting rotation, and the Braves are going to need him to continue to find last season’s form, especially in a division that features four of the top 13 opposing lineups against lefties this season.

Altogether, other than Santana’s start that kind of fell apart at the tail end, the Braves starters held up fairly well in this series — certainly deserving of a win or two, as opposed to getting swept.

When Kimbrel earned his 13th save of the season in a three-strikeout effort against the Rockies and then was not given another opportunity for the remainder of the nine-game homestand, the Atlanta franchise was presented with the very real scenario of its star closer making history on the road. Kimbrel remains two saves shy of tying Smoltz’s franchise record of 154, and after being brought in to throw for the first time in nearly a week for a non-save appearance, the tides have once again turned.

After facing the chance of Kimbrel saving three of five games on this road trip — hence, breaking the record — he would now need to save all three in Miami. (And that’s not including how poorly the Braves have played of late, meaning there may not even be an opportunity.) Playing the odds, it now looks like Kimbrel at least has a shot at tying and/or setting the record at Turner Field, albeit for a brief two-game window against the Mariners next week.

So that’s some silver lining here.

As for his rocky ninth inning on Thursday night after being brought in to get out of a jam during the eighth, which is exactly the type of high-leverage usage of the game’s top reliever people clamored for during their NLDS finale against the Dodgers, Gonzalez said it was good experience for Kimbrel to go through. I’m inclined to agree. The team’s back was up against the wall with bases loaded in the eighth inning with a potential sweep on the line in Fenway Park — that’s a playoff situation and it’s one that Kimbrel should be out there for. (Some would argue he should have gone out sooner, although surely Gonzalez could not have predicted so many defensive miscues plaguing his team.)

"Maybe sitting down and getting back up, cranking back up wasn’t conducive (to success). But we gotta try it, we gotta do it. I thought the situation called for our big-game pitcher (in the eighth inning), and he did a nice job getting (David Ross) there with the bases loaded," Gonzalez said. "That experience of sitting down for a little bit and getting back out there could help him."