Three Cuts: Braves rally falls short, lose to Angels in 13
JUN 15, 2014 1:27a ET
ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves battled back from a five-run deficit in the late innings, staying alive by knotting the score in the ninth and 10th innings, but still fell by a substantial margin to the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday night. The Braves lost 11-6 in extra innings after the Angels rattled off five straight runs in the 13th inning. Here are three observations from the marathon at Turner Field:
1. The Braves' offense found some late-inning magic, but it wasn't enough
Looking to reclaim the lead in the National League East, the Braves turned their 67th game of the campaign into a marathon that was just a quarter mile too far. They started slow, finished with a flurry -- twice -- and tapered off at the end.
It wasn't enough against the Angels on Saturday night, but, as Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and his players repeated in the clubhouse after the game, at least they showed up. Using terms like "battle back," the 11-6 loss felt much better than the 5-0 loss it was shaping up to be five innings (and five hours) prior.
For much of the night, the Braves flirted with the prospect of being shutout for the eighth time this season. Angels starter Garrett Richards set a career high with 10 strikeouts. With just three outs left to work with in the ninth, Atlanta was 0 for 3 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine runners.
Then it all disappeared. All the frustration and goose eggs washed away, replaced by an offensive force that the L.A. bullpen had very few answers for. Following Evan Gattis's 15th home run of the year in the eighth, the Braves tacked on four game-tying runs with five hits in the ninth. When the Angels went back ahead in the 10th inning on a Josh Hamilton single, the Braves once again erased it with an RBI single of their own from Jason Heyward.
In the end, the bullpen was gassed and the Angels hit their own stride in the 13th, putting up five runs on Braves reliever David Hale, who was pitching on five day's rest. A mundane night at the plate quickly turned into 31 combined hits, 17 runs, 22 runners left on base and 41 players seeing action.
"I tell you what, I give a lot of credit to our guys. We were down, what, four runs there in the ninth inning and battled back, battled back," Gonzalez said. "We have a lot of deficits on our team, but battling and fighting is not one of them. And I'm sure everybody's got some pimples here and there, but that's not a trait that we lack. We battle our (butt) off all the way to the end."
As thrilling as the comeback was, though, it's difficult not to see how many opportunities the Braves left on the table: Justin Upton grounds out with two on and two outs in the third; Chris Johnson hit into his league-leading 12th double play to kill the ninth-inning rally; Andrelton Simmons lined into an unfortunate double play with two runners on to end the 11th inning.
But the most excruciating came in the bottom of the 10th inning with the bases loaded and Justin Upton, one of the most lethal hitters at home in baseball, at the plate. With a hitter's count, Upton blooped a soft fly ball into shallow right â¦ far out in front of where Angels outfielder Kole Calhoun was playing him. It was to be the game-winning hit until Calhoun came up with a spectacular diving grab, preserving the tie and allowing the Angels to power their way through the 13th. That killed Atlanta's momentum.
"Everybody was ready to jump out (of the dugout)," Simmons said. "That won them the game. That was a big moment for them. They fought back after that and they ended up taking it."
The Braves offense still ranks 28th in the majors in scoring, but for Simmons and his teammates the rally provided some positives. Not only did their No. 3 hitter Freddie Freeman, who had arguably been their least productive hitter in June, come up with the key ground-rule to knot the game at 5-5, but there was production throughout the lineup at the same time. If only for a short burst.
In the end, the (team) that capitalizes is the one that wins, but at least we showed that we have it. We're capable of coming back. Our offense is capable of waking up at any time. That's a good sign at least," Simmons said. "It shows you how quick we can put up runs. â¦ We've got players that are able get on base and get a big hit."
Added a less enthusiastic B.J. Upton, who redeemed his eighth-inning error with a two-run triple in the ninth: "It's a loss. We had our chances, I think that's the biggest thing. We battled back and then had some chances to walk away with the win and we didn't. So we'll take that, swallow it and be ready to come back and play tomorrow."
2. Back-to-back decent starts from Gavin Floyd and Aaron Harang bodes well
The Atlanta Braves, in case you haven't heard, are believed to be in the trade market. With left-hander Alex Wood being sent back to Triple-A Gwinnett to get stretched back out as a starter -- not to mention getting off to an excellent start; he allowed just two hits and struck out five in 3 2/3 shutout innings on Friday night -- the rumor mill spotlight has turned back on the team's excellent rotation.
The Braves starters ranked third in ERA (3.18) and seventh in WAR (5.8) entering the second game of their interleague series against the Angels, but barring a six-man rotation, something the franchise has avoided to date, room needs to be made in the coming weeks. Wood shouldn't take long to get his stamina back. This leaves Atlanta looking to deal one of their starters, each of whom have been very good, at least in spots, this season.
Julio Teheran just signed a long-term extension and looks like the current and future ace of the rotation. Ervin Santana is on a one-year, $14 million deal, but it's difficult to imagine the Braves cutting that cord so quickly. Mike Minor has been a mainstay in the rotation for a few years now, and many believe he could be the next in line to receive a long-term deal. (Not everybody. I still believe Wood will be the next man up, as Minor's projected price tag could leave the Braves in a difficult position with Jason Heyward and Justin Upton also coming off the payroll in the near future.)
All of which brings us back, of course, to the back end of the staff: Floyd and Harang. Both players have given the franchise more than it could have reasonably expected after signing on as unheralded free agents during the offseason, in turn upping their value on the trade market for teams in need of pitching.
After his performance on Friday night, Harang still ranks in the MLB's top-30 in WAR with a 3.20 ERA. Floyd did not quite follow suit, but he held his own, allowing four earned runs in 6 1/3 innings with four Ks. Ideal? Not exactly. But it's not a complete failure against a team that ranks fourth in runs scored and features the likes of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. His ERA still sits below 3.00 and his strikeout-to-walk rate is respectable.
Is a deal going to happen? That remains to be seen. But Harang and Floyd are the oft-discussed candidates and they've done nothing but help the Braves both on the field and, presumably, in the front office.
There are still questions. Are Floyd and Harang even viable options on the trade market -- i.e. are they drawing any interest around the league? Would the Braves try and cut ties with Santana, a guy who carries the highest price tag on the staff (they went out of their way to go over their intended payroll cap to sign him) and has pitched at replacement level over the past month? Is a deal involving Minor, who would draw the best return for Atlanta with three years still remaining in arbitration, even realistic?
Given the price and production to date, Floyd seems like the most likely candidate to part with, but that's under the assumption Atlanta can find a trade partner willing to take on an expiring contract and return bullpen help. There aren't too many buyers in need of veteran pitching help that are also willing to part ways with a quality relief arm or bat.
All the same, Floyd and Harang keep helping the Braves cause, one way or another.
3. A brief ode to Mike Trout
On Saturday night, Turner Field became the 16th ballpark that 22-year-old Mike Trout has homered in, giving another packed house its money's worth (sorta) and adding another highlight to what has already been a historic start to his career. When the best player in baseball comes to town, this type of performance is expected. And he keeps on delivering.
Trout finished his night off going 3 for 6 with the solo homer, a double, a walk, a stolen base and four RBI -- closing the door on the Braves with his 13th-inning insurance double. Adding those numbers to his double and walk from the night before, and his debut against the Braves is off to a dominant start: he's reached base in five of his 11 plate appearances with three extra-base hits. Good thing the Braves -- or any NL team, really -- don't face him on a regular basis.
(In Atlanta's defense, he hasn't exactly seen its best arms yet. He's due to see Mike Minor on Sunday night, although he's hitting even better against lefties this season.)
Perhaps the highlight of his evening came in the top of the seventh inning, though, as the Braves brought in effective right-handed reliever Anthony Varvaro with the sole intention of getting Trout out -- and preventing a swelling lead in the middle innings. Varvaro was set to face Trout with the bases loaded and two outs â¦ perhaps the most difficult situation of the reliever's career to date.
The Braves righty kept making his pitches, too. He jumped out to an 0-1 count with a called strike. After two balls, he drew the count even at 2-2 with a 92-mph fastball. Then Trout went to work. He fouled off a curve, then a fastball, then a curve, then another fastball to stay alive. On the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Varvaro finally lost him with a full count, coming way inside to walk home the game's fourth run.
Trout refused to give an inch, fouling off anything and everything, and yet another pitcher was eventually coaxed into giving up 90 feet. Tough sledding.
So how is he stacking up this season compared to his previous (shoulda-been two-time AL MVP) years? Pretty much the same all-around nightmare. Thanks to his first trip to Atlanta, he's hitting .299/.387/.573 with 13 homers and 49 RBI. He ranks second in the majors in WAR behind only the offensive terror that is Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and seventh in weighted runs created (wRC+).
Minor will look to give him a bit more trouble in the series finale -- and try to avoid facing him with three runners on.