Three Cuts: Braves drop third straight to surging Cardinals

Here are three things we learned from the Braves’ 6-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, the club’s third straight defeat:

1. Atlanta’s quartet of pitchers had little answers for the top of the St. Louis order

For the night, the Cardinals’ 1-2-3 hitters (Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday) combined for two homers, four runs, five RBI and six hits against Julio Teheran, David Carpenter, Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro.

The trio’s hearty production was more than enough to cover for a cluster of 4-9 hitters who collected only four hits in 20 at-bats.

Carpenter (one RBI, two runs, two hits) belted a first-inning homer off Teheran on 1-2 count. Beltran’s blast came in the 3rd, immediately after the Braves right-hander fanned Carpenter.

And Holliday (one run, one hit) was responsible for a two-run double in the 7th, a timely blow that made Saturday’s outcome largely academic. For Holliday, his big surge carried over to yet another day, boosting his 30-day numbers to four homers, 19 RBI, 17 runs and a .335 batting average.

Teheran (four runs allowed, eight strikeouts in six innings) certainly didn’t have his A-game against the Cardinals (76-53), walking a season-high five hitters. But there were a few positives:

**Of his six innings, Teheran retired the first batter five times.

**He held Molina (1 for 4) hitless over three at-bats, something that’s crucial to Braves third baseman Chris Johnson (more on that later).

**Upon leaving the game (bottom of the 7th), Teheran seemingly had the Braves — only down 2-1 at the time — positioned for a late run at victory. But Holliday’s RBI double off Carpenter added to Teheran’s run count … and strengthened the Cards’ lead.

There’s also a future item to celebrate: Teheran’s next three starts will likely come against the Phillies and Marlins (twice). The rookie still has a decent chance at 14 wins by season’s end.

2. And so concludes a rough calendar week for the Atlanta offense

The Braves (77-52, up 12 games in the NL East) have mustered only 14 runs in their last six games, for a paltry average of 2.33 runs per outing.

Put in deeper context, it’s the club’s lowest Sunday-to-Saturday output of runs in 2013 — and that includes the three-game period during All-Star Week in July.

So, what to make of this downturn, from a group that was humming on all cylinders just a few weeks ago?

The cock-eyed optimist would point to the absences of Jason Heyward (broken jaw) and Dan Uggla (LASIK surgery), while crediting the Saturday efforts of Cardinals starter Shelby Miller (six strikeouts, one run allowed over seven innings).

The pessimist might have a crestfallen assessment of the Braves’ injuries, saying the mental fatigue of losing Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Tyler Pastornicky for the season … and Heyward and pitcher Brandon Beachy (elbow) for extended time could prove fatal to Atlanta’s title chances in October.

The objective writer, in turn, might invoke a combination take, acknowledging the seemingly never-ending spate of injuries, while also hailing the Cardinals as the Braves’ most formidable obstacle during the playoffs. (Sorry, Dodgers.)

Assuming St. Louis (tied for 1st in the National League Central) can take the division crown, or advance out of the wild-card round.

On Saturday, Freddie Freeman crushed a solo homer in the first inning off Miller.

But that flash of short-term goodness still couldn’t preclude the Braves from sending only three or four hitters to the plate for the first seven frames. And by the time they found some mojo in the eighth and ninth innings, it was too late to mount a serious charge.

To wit, in the 9th, with two runners on and two out, new Atlanta acquisition Elliott Johnson had a chance at something special. However, St. Louis closer Edward Mujica quickly put out the fire, fanning Johnson to end the game.

For this Sunday-to-Saturday period, Freeman tallied one homer, five RBI, 12 hits and a batting average well above .400.

For the season, it’s reasonable that Freeman (16 HRs, 85 RBI, 69 runs, .316 batting, .393 on-base percentage) could garner a healthy share of MVP votes — if the Braves finish with the National League’s best record.

3. The quirky race for the National League batting title could easily come down to the last Sunday in September

Here’s the weird thing about Chris Johnson (.331) trailing Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (.336) for the NL batting lead:

Of the last 30 days, the Braves third baseman has batted at a .349 clip; and just a few weeks ago — when Molina was shelved with a knee injury — Johnson actually enjoyed a 17-point lead over the competition for a day or two.

And yet, he’s currently running second with one of baseball’s highest-profile individual challenges, from year to year.

Speaking of Molina, he has a 30-day track record of .320 batting and a .320 on-base percentage — meaning he hasn’t drawn a single walk in a month.

And since July 2, Molina has earned only five free passes.

It stands to reason: Johnson, who has hit safely in 11 of 12 games and boasts 23 multiple-hit outings since June 23, still has a great shot at capturing the NL crown by season’s end.

With that type of proficiency, it’s hard to see Johnson coming up short against an immensely talented, but notoriously impatient batter like Molina.