The Atlanta Braves are back in the loss column after blowing a 2-0 lead in the final two innings of Wednesday night’s game, falling in walk-off fashion to the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2 at PNC Park.
The loss snapped a five-game winning streak in cruel fashion: the Braves dominated almost the entirety of the game behind another excellent start from young left-hander Alex Wood and some timely hitting in the middle of the lineup, but could not close the deal in the late going. Here are three observations from the loss:
The list of errors piled up on the Braves in the ninth inning, none more apparent and costly than the communication breakdown (or lack thereof) between outfielders Justin and B.J. Upton that resulted in a dropped ball to place the game-winning run at third base. An old turn of phrase — stealing defeat from the jaws of victory — came to mind, although the brothers did not see it that way in the aftermath.
Though the play was ruled an error after the ball hit left fielder Justin Upton’s glove, the play was apparently more difficult than it looked on TV.
"There was nothing we could do," said Justin, who came the closest to making the play since the Braves were shifted to right field for Pirates outfielder Starling Marte. The ninth-inning play set Pittsburgh up with runners at second and third with one out. "That ball was literally right between where both of us could get to it. It was just perfect placement."
For his part, B.J. Upton told reporters that neither one called for the ball. Their manager, judging by his own postgame comments, seemed to disagree.
"We make that play 99 out of 100 times, 99 and a half times, you know? And we didn’t make it," Fredi Gonzalez said.
Perfect placement or not, it was a play that should have been made (if an MLB scorer purposefully avoids handing out a hit to the home team, that’s usually pretty telling). The very next batter, Gaby Sanchez, skied the game-winning sac fly on the very next pitch. With that, the Braves fell 3-2 and are now even farther back in the NL East division race.
The Uptons’ play was not the only mishandled event on the night, though. The Braves allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base in the eighth and ninth innings — the Pirates scored their three runs in those frames. Jordan Walden relieved Wood in the eighth inning and could not get out of his inherited trouble, allowing the game-tying run to score on a wild pitch. There was also the issue of the game-deciding plate appearance: instead of intentionally walking Sanchez to the open base to set up a potential double-play ball, reliever David Carpenter hummed a fastball that the Pirates’ first baseman could obviously handle.
It was a rough ending to a strong stretch of baseball for the Braves. They had rattled off five straight wins against the Athletics and Pirates, including 33 runs scored in those games, but could not take that positive momentum with them to Cincinnati.
"You hate to lose a game like this," Gonzalez said, "because we had a lot of positive stuff."
Since re-entering the rotation in late June, Alex Wood has quickly reestablished himself as one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Though he held a modest 1.4 wins above replacement through his first 17 starts this season — not including his dominant outing against a good Pirates team on Wednesday night — he’s allowed more than two earned runs in just four of those outings. Make that four of 18 after holding the Pirates in check.
Wood was relentless in seven innings of work. He ended up allowing two earned runs on five hits and one walk, but if it weren’t for the Braves’ decision to send him back out for the eighth inning, it would have been a spotless outing. That didn’t offer much consolation for Wood after the loss, though.
"It’s one of those things where you can’t put your setup guy in that position," Wood said of his two allowed runs in the eighth. "You’re in a 2-0 game. You can’t walk the leadoff guy and then go 0-2 (count) to the only lefty in that lineup and hang a breaking ball. It has to be buried, you have to go somewhere else with it after you threw the first two. If you want to go deep in games and be one of the best in the league, that can’t happen in the eighth inning. It’s inexcusable.
" … We lost. There’s not many positives to get out of it. One minute you’re carving them up, going all nice, and all of a sudden you get back out there for the eighth, you walk a guy and hang a breaking ball it’s a whole new ballgame."
Last week, I wrote about Wood’s strong performances to date when matched up with an opposing ace (including, coincidentally, Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh’s opposing starter, in his first high-profile college game). Since that piece went up, he’s beaten Oakland and Pittsburgh, two teams in the thick of the playoff hunt. In fact, throwing in his starts against the Dodgers, Mariners and Nationals, Wood has faced postseason contenders in five straight starts — he’s allowed just seven earned runs over that stretch.
"He does it all the time," Gonzalez said. "And that kid across the way (Cole), that’s pretty good stuff for a young pitcher. And they both matched up inning for inning, pitch by pitch. Both of those guys stay healthy — which is the unknown, you never know — you’re gonna see that type of matchup for a long time."
But perhaps Wood’s young career’s best accomplishment to date has come in his timing. Wood was a key component of last season’s division lead-building hot streak after the All-Star break, and now his performances have helped keep the Braves afloat in the playoff picture. For the past two seasons, at least in Braves terms, August — a month that can keep alive or crush the playoff chase for some teams — has been 31-day clinic for Wood.
In nine career August starts, he’s allowed just nine earned runs. Total. That’s a cool 1.44 ERA for Gonzalez & Co. to rely on.
Mr. August doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as other month-related nicknames in the baseball universe, but Wood is once again staking his claim at a key juncture in Atlanta’s season.
While the Braves cooled off, at least for one game, the Nationals continue to roll. Washington won its ninth straight game with its own walk-off on Wednesday night, extending the NL East lead to seven games. For a while the Braves kept pace, but nine-game winning streaks in August make for difficult division races, especially when the leader is enjoying a string of good fortune that helps it win three of its past four games in walk-off fashion.
The Braves are still much closer to the Marlins than they are the Nationals in the standings, and if they can’t sweep — or come really, really close to it — their remaining games against the Nats then it’s becoming more and more difficult to see this division crown staying in Atlanta.
Perhaps more importantly, the loss knocks the Braves farther back in the wildcard hunt.
With the Cardinals and Giants winning on Wednesday night, the Braves are now 3 1/2 games behind the former and 1 1/2 games behind the latter. A wildcard spot remains extremely realistic, but Atlanta is chasing two good teams and letting games like this slip through its fingers, or the web of a glove, will only complicate matters down the stretch.