Three Cuts: Braves offense sputters again in loss to Cards

Shortstop Andrelton Simmons scored on a throwing error for the Braves' only run in a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday.

Jeff Roberson/AP

The Atlanta Braves’ road woes continue. Following a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon, the Braves are now 1-8 in their past nine road games, with very few signs of improvement. Here are three observations from the game:

Different game, same storyline. After scoring fewer than two runs for the 14th time this season, the Braves continue to be the only team keeping the middling San Diego Padres company at the bottom of MLB’s scoring list. Through 41 games, the Braves (22-19) hold of the National League East lead is looking less and less stable as they are averaging just 3.15 runs per game — and while their pitching is keeping them in practically every game, at this rate, every opponent has to feel like it has a fighting chance as the Braves’ low-scoring ways continue.

Against Cardinals starter Shelby Miller and his three-man relief unit, the Braves managed just six hits in 30 at-bats, adding on three walks and 10 strikeouts. Their lone run came on a throwing error, as they stranded five runners and went 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position. It’s just the same repeating trend for the one of the worst situational hitting teams in baseball right now, and the frustrations are starting to boil over — at least on the field. Manager Fredi Gonzalez, after earning his first ejection of the season in the fifth inning, acknowledged the problem but asked an essential question: What more is there left to do but wait for the talent to start coming through?

"Keep grinding, keep battling. One of the few things you can control as coach or a manager is just playing hard," Gonzalez said. "And I see guys jumping all over the place — B.J. (Upton) made a great catch on a ball, sinking line drive; Justin leaving his feet on a sinking line drive. And the guys are playing hard, and that’s pretty much the only thing you can control.

"Everything else is out of your hands."

Playing hard carries little significance at the plate for this team, though — the Braves have ranked among the top-five fielding teams in baseball the entire season. At this point, result are results. Then again, how much more can Gonzalez change around, lineup-wise?

He’s tried moving his most productive bats to date (Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Chris Johnson) higher up in the lineup, only to see them go through their own slumps. He’s moved struggling hitters like B.J. Upton, who has logged 16 strikeouts in his last eight games for an MLB-worst 56 Ks this season, farther and farther down. He’s test-driving the pitcher hitting in the No. 8 hole. He’s moved his worst "everyday" bat completely out of the everyday rotation lately, as second baseman Dan Uggla has not started since May 6 — seeing a couple pinch-hitting opportunities, but not playing in nine games already this month. Uggla’s replacements, Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena, have been only marginal upgrades at the plate.

That’s a lot of shuffling. There are only so many cards in this deck.

"I’ve seen guys in spurts," Gonzalez said. "Simmons had a terrific day (3 for 3), gives you good at-bats. Heyward gives you great at-bats … We just need to continue down the line."

Perhaps as both an encouragement and an added frustration, the pitching staff continues to deliver. Before coughing up a couple runs at the tail end of his start on Saturday, starter Aaron Harang pitched just fine, logging six innings and striking out seven with zero walks. In 14 of the Braves’ 19 losses, the final scoring margin was three runs or fewer. That means that only five losses have come in blowout fashion, so a bit more run production and the record is probably not approaching the .500 mark.

"We were absolutely in the game, you know? The Cardinals are team you have to show up and execute the small things. That’s how they beat you. They obviously have the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, but that’s not their goal. Their mindset is to do the little things right. They’ve got guys on the bunts (four bunt singles), other guys came in behind them took a single, put it in play and they were able to scratch some runs off."

Atlanta would take that — or just about anything, really — right now.

It takes a certain level of frustration — and a degree of helplessness — for an MLB manager to get ejected in the replay era. When there’s replay available, there’s little need to get too heated (although manager ejections numbers are slightly ahead of last season’s pace of 17 through May 18) over a close/missed call. And yet, a day after Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was tossed for arguing balls and strikes in the Cardinals’ 5-2 win against the Braves, Gonzalez got in on the action, getting tossed for the first time in 2014.

And he more than deserved to have his say, thanks to a blatant oversight by the MLB replay system’s rules.

On a fifth inning squeeze play with pitcher Aaron Harang at the plate and shortstop Andrelton Simmons on second, Harang fouled a bunt attempt directly into the dirt near home plate. Though the bunt had forward spin, it was clearly in foul territory when Cardinals Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina jumped to his feet, snagged the ball and fired it to third base to nail Simmons — triggering an easy (albeit illegal) fielder’s choice double play for the frame’s first two outs and ending one of the Braves’ rare scoring opportunities.

It was a blatant oversight. (For any who disagree, here’s some pretty damning evidence. That being said, and given his viewing angle on the play, home plate umpire Ron Kulpa should have received some assistance — or asked for it — from his fellow crew members at first and/or third.) On a foul ball, which is what the play was, Simmons should have been sent back to second base and Harang would have been saddled with a 1-2 count. That surely was better than the two-out alternative.

Gonzalez, coming to the defense of his floundering offense, wasn’t about to let that fly without an argument. Unfortunately for Gonzalez, baseball’s rules committee botched any recourse he may have had through the replay system, as infield foul balls are — for some unknown and likely ridiculous reason — not reviewable plays. After a heated exchange, Kulpa added insult to incompetence by tossing Gonzalez out of the game.

"After looking at it, it’s a tough call when you gotta make a call that way," Gonzalez said. "After that you come back here (to the clubhouse) and it was close, but I thought maybe five, six inches foul when Yadier got it. But it’s a tough job, it’s a tough situation. They gotta make the call and there’s no help, really. And that’s what I kept asking: ‘Can we get some help, some more of the guys down the line?’ And what are going to do? We still only scored one run. That would have been a nice opportunity, you know?"

Gonzalez’s ejection is the 18th manager ejection this season.

At the time of the play, it was a 1-1 game. The Cardinals closed out their final four offensive frames with three runs to put the Braves away.

As discussed above, the last thing this Atlanta offense is needs is too fewer outs to work in any given game against a National League power, not to mention with Miller and his 2.79 ERA on the mound. And, of course, it would be far too much to ask for an MLB umpire to show some restraint on an obvious missed call, take the brunt Gonzalez’s understandable frustration and simply explain that he is handcuffed by the replay rules in the situation.

With RBI situations in such high demand, it’s no wonder that the Braves pitching staff has only driven in two runs so far this season, tied for the second-lowest total in the National League with the Nationals. And at negative-49 weighted runs created, only the Mets pitchers have been worse at the plate. It’s a dubious problem, to be sure. Atlanta pitchers are employed to shut down opponents in the exact manner that they have to date, but when the scoreboard is stagnant and the losses are piling up, any little bit helps.

Harang did not join Julio Teheran and David Hale on the "Braves Pitchers Boasting RBI" list, but it was his bat that put the pressure on St. Louis and eventually led to the first run of the game.

In the second inning, following a single by Simmons (yes, the best player on the field for the Braves on Saturday), Harang’s single off Miller led to some base-running manufacturing. After Simmons rounded second base, the throw from left field came in behind him … leaving with no choice but to take third base. And when the throw to third base was off the mark, Simmons sprinted home: 1-0 Braves. The Cardinals, aided by a few gimme-outs, shut the door after that.

It was the eighth non-RBI run Atlanta has scored this season.

"Aaron, what else can you ask from him?" Gonzalez said. "Six innings, gave up three runs, got himself a base hit. We just gotta get the bats going."