Three Cuts: Braves fall short in series-deciding loss to Dodgers
Aug 14, 2014 at 4:21p ET
1. There's a sense of deja vu from Aaron Harang's rough start
Back on June 18, Harang took the Turner Field mound for a getaway-day matinee against Roberto Hernandez and the Phillies, surrendering eight earned runs and 13 hits in the Braves' 10-5 loss, clinching Philly's three-game road sweep.
Fast forward to Thursday, as Harang -- paired up against Hernandez once again (recently traded to the Dodgers) -- suffered through his shortest start of the year, allowing five runs and seven hits over just 4 1/3 innings of work.
"Sometimes you match up better with some teams than others," said Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez, when discussing Harang's performance. He then complimented the veteran righty, saying he at least "minimized the damage."
To his credit, Harang retired the leadoff hitter in three of five frames; but overall, he couldn't contain Dee Gordon (one run, two walks, two runs vs. Harang), Adrian Gonzalez (two RBI singles) or light-hitting catcher Drew Butera (two-run homer in the 3rd) from wreaking havoc in the Dodgers' lineup.
"Dee Gordon beat us," said a blunt Gonzalez, lamenting how the Dodgers might have the most traditional leadoff man in baseball. For the entire day, Gordon was a stat-sheet stuffer, rummaging for two steals, three hits and four runs.
In his postgame address, Harang bore a blank expression when asked if the early 12:10 start played a role in his uneven effort.
"Noon games are definitely tougher to prepare for (compared to 1 p.m. and night-time starts)," said Harang, whose seasonal ERA (3.51) jumped 20 points after Thursday's outing. He then added: "It seemed like every pitch I threw came back to the middle of the plate.".
As such, the Braves (3-4 for this homestand) are mired in a 3-12 funk that dates back to July 29 and need to take the upcoming series against the Oakland Athletics, aka the best team in baseball (73-47).
2. Atlanta's erratic offense cannot afford to lose Justin Upton for a sustained period of time
The Braves have recorded just three or less runs a staggering 17 times since July 19, going 7-18 during that stretch.
And it would have been "18 times" if the club hadn't scored thrice in the 8th, pushing their overall tally to four runs. (It might have been a five-run inning if Evan Gattis's mammoth long drive against Kenley Jansen didn't stray foul.)
The offense has faced enough outside pressure -- and enough quality starting pitching -- over the last two months. It's hard to think of how the Braves might progress without Justin Upton (left with mild hamstring tweak) in the lineup.
His two-RBI double in the 8th (off Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson), scoring Emilio Bonifacio (one hit, one run) and Freddie Freeman (three hits, two runs), revived the Braves' once-dormant offense.
Upton would later score on Andrelton Simmons' RBI single -- but he likely incurred the lower-leg injury when running from second to third base on Chris Johnson's sacrifice fly.
(After the game, Upton said his hamstring malady "flared up a bit," while quietly adding "he was not too concerned" about missing substantial time.)
2a. Thursday's lineup change might have season-long ramifications
At the end of his postgame media chat, Gonzalez hinted the club would "evaluate" the various lineup combinations from this point forward. But he was also quick to praise leadoff hitter Jason Heyward for his Thursday contribution -- one walk, one steal and two hits.
Whether that entails Heyward sticking at the 1-hole on a permanent basis remains to be seen, but it's worth noting:
When batting leadoff in 2014, spanning 70 games, Heyward has the following strong tallies: Eight homers, 27 RBI, 35 runs, 10 steals and a .337 on-base percentage.
2b. There are no words to describe Yasiel Puig's leaping, twisting catch of Freddie Freeman's moon shot to center field
Outside of WOW!
In earnest, the enigmatic, but supremely athletic Puig robbed Freeman of his fourth hit of the day.
3. The Braves are flirting with that dangerous territory where only the wild card seems plausible
At 61-60, Atlanta now sits 5 1/2 games behind Washington in the NL East race -- a baffling gap since the Braves hold a 9-4 seasonal lead in head-to-head meetings.
(The Dodgers, at 70- 53, own the same division advantage in the National League West.)
But then again, the Braves should be thankful they're still part of the secondary playoff discussion.
This is only Year 3 of Major League Baseball's wild-card expansion for each league (two clubs apiece since 2012) ... but for this century, spanning 14 previous seasons, the National League's two best non-division winners have averaged 90.2 victories -- with only one club falling below 86 wins (2005 Phillies -- missed the playoffs).
The current Braves are on track for 82 wins -- which won't pass the muster, since the Pirates (64-56), Cardinals (63-56) and Giants (63-57) are all on pace for 86 victories.
Which brings us to this: If the Braves are to remain realistic about their chances for a division title or wild-card berth, they can do no worse than 5-5 in the forthcoming 10 matchups against the Athletics (home), Pirates (away) and Reds (away).
Any further slippage, and we may be on the brink of the biggest cardinal sin a supposed title contender from the spring can commit during the late-summer months:
Playing meaningless games in mid-September.