ATLANTA — The Braves find them in a place they haven’t been in nearly two years: searching for answers.
For the second straight series Atlanta came up empty handed as it fell 4-1 to the Giants on Sunday at Turner Field, marking the Braves’ sixth loss in a row and San Francisco’s first sweep in Georgia since 1988.
During last year’s National League East title run, they never lost more than four in a row and now have the franchise’s longest skid since dropping eight from May 21-27, 2012 in games against the Reds, Nationals and Cardinals.
Amid an April in which the Braves put together a 17-9 record, they rode the majors’ best rotation, needing only the smallest bit of offense. They’ve now scored one run in three straight and three or less in eight of the last 13, winning just five times in that span.
"I don’t want to use the word ‘frustrating’ — and I won’t — but … we’re just too talented of a team offensively to not put a crooked number up," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "The one part of me says ‘Every team goes through this stuff,’ and you look at all the great teams, there’s some place in the middle of the season where you think nobody’s every picked up a bat or ball."
Manufacturing runs was masked last season when the Braves hit a NL-best 181 homers and like that run, Atlanta is relying on the long ball, sitting sixth in MLB with 32 — which brings us to the first of today’s three things we learned from the Ted:
Chris Johnson’s leadoff single in the fifth inning went to waste, as he was stranded at third base. Then, an inning later B.J. Upton stood at third base with one out only to watch his brother Justin pop out to first baseman Brandon Belt and Evan Gattis strike out.
The Braves were 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position on the day, with their only breakthrough coming via a Jason Heyward sacrifice fly in the third inning.
Saturday was a sign of progress at Atlanta went 2 for 8 with RISP and had three hits in 17 strikes in the series heading into the finale, but Sunday dropped the Braves to an alarming place a little more than one month into the season.
Overall, the Braves are hitting .210 (43 for 204) with men on second or third, which ranks just ahead of the 1942 Boston Braves (.194), who own the franchise’s lowest average in that department going back to 1941.
"Sooner or later, somebody’s going to have to pay for it, sooner or later," Gonzalez said. "Somebody’s going to come in here and we’re going to have to score 10 runs a game for two or three weeks, so that’s my mindset I got going on right now."
A year ago, the Braves hit .243 with RISP, but that was helped along by Freddie Freeman, who was second in the majors at .443, and Johnson (.336). They were the only two Atlanta regulars to hit over .250.
It’s once again Freeman at the top this season, as he’s 10 for 25 (.400) and has company above the .300 line in Gattis at .333 (4 for 12), but beyond that Atlanta has four everyday players hitting below .200 with RISP, including the aforementioned Johnson at .105.
Gonzalez says aren’t many changes that he could see making any changes to a lineup filled with the players who produced 96 wins and a division crown last year.
"Sometimes you have to take a little step back before you go forward … and it’s maybe come in an d do something a little different, but nothing major," he said.
The last time out, Alex Wood was at his worst as a major league starter, allowing seven runs and 10 hits and striking out just two against the Marlins on Tuesday.
Wood put that start behind him, yielding two runs on seven hits and fanned seven Sunday in a solid five-inning outing that was only lacking efficiency — and some much-needed run support.
Wood (2-5) exited having thrown 103 pitches, four short of the season-high he tossed in seven innings against the Nationals on April 6, culminating in an eight-pitch at-bat vs. Pablo Sandoval (who he hit in the second inning) to get out of the fifth. He also gave up his fifth home run of the season, a solo shot by Brandon Crawford in the fourth.
But the first Giants run came on a catcher’s interference, the third overall called on Evan Gattis this season and Wood did produce his fourth game with at least seven Ks on the year, four of which have come in his last four outings.
"Kind of the streak we’re on right now, we’ve lost several in a row, it’s hard to feel good about any of it, really, much less how I perform personally," Wood said. "We had somebody go out there and hit two solo home runs and we still lost 4-1."
What hampered Wood on Sunday is what has been his biggest problem for the season’s first month-plus: run support (sense a trend here?). The Braves have scored two runs or less in all seven of his starts, giving him losses in four of his last five outings and now four in a row.
"Our pitching’s been great, for whatever reason our offense hasn’t done what it’s capable of doing," said second baseman Dan Uggla.
Wood’s next scheduled start is Saturday against the Cubs, which will be two days shy of a full month since his last victory on April 12. But he has this nugget to look forward to: the Cubs have allowed 4.04 runs per game, sixth-worst in the National League, so his offense could have every opportunity to break through for him.
This much we know: Gavin Floyd was activated from the disabled list Sunday — with the subsequent move of Ian Thomas being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett — and will make his Atlanta debut on Tuesday against the Cardinals.
But he’s doing so as a spot start with Ervin Santana being skipped with a bruised thumb on his throwing hand. So, basically, the Braves have delayed having to make a definitive decision, or at least one for the immediate future, as to where Floyd fits on this roster.
"When I knew I was getting close and that everybody was doing well in the starting rotation, I was curious about what they were going to do," said Floyd, who underwent Tommy John surgery and has been out since April 27, 2013. "I kind of wanted to be prepared for whatever they were going to say … obviously I feel real good, I feel strong. I’m ready and it is what it is right now."
Santana doesn’t expect to be out any extended period of time, leaving it up in the air to whether Floyd could be headed to the bullpen after his initial start.
He has made just one relief appearance since 2008 and with the Braves boasting a MLB-best 2.67 rotation ERA, there no glaring hole for Floyd to fill. Atlanta has been so strong, that it had to move David Hale (2.31 ERA in four starts) to the bullpen earlier this week to make room for Mike Minor. With Hale giving Atlanta a long reliever, would Gonzalez and Braves brass be willing to utilize Floyd as another?
Floyd, expectedly, isn’t looking beyond Tuesday and the Cardinals, though it’s likely the next time he pitches after that is going to come with a hard decision attached.
"I’m getting mentally, physically prepared for Tuesday, that’s my focus," Floyd said. "Just go out there and be as focused as I can be on each pitch and get a chance to win."