Three Cuts: Kimbrel looking mortal as Braves fall to Reds

Taking three cuts following the Braves’ 5-4 loss to the Reds on Tuesday in Cincinnati.

1. For the first time, Kimbrel is truly slumping

Craig Kimbrel watched the ball sail beyond the left-center field wall and was on his way off the field before Shin-Soo Choo had even rounded third.

For the third time in his last five attempts, the Braves’ All-Star closer — who was one strike away from the 100th save of his career — had blown a save. A year ago, he had just three over the entire course of the season and he didn’t allow more than one hit in any inning.

But Kimbrel has been touched for multiple hits in two of those missed opportunities, most glaringly Tuesday when he gave up back-to-back home runs to Devin Mesorasco (on a 3-2 pitch with two outs) and Choo. Even on Monday, when Kimbrel earned his 10th save of 2013, he allowed two singles before striking out Joey Votto to end the game.

“All around it’s frustrating, it’s been frustrating the past few weeks,” Kimbrel said. “It’s like I can’t get it done. I can’t finish it right now. It’s frustrating. I’ve blown three saves and I feel like those are three wins we should have under our belts.”

So what’s ailing the reliever who has been the most dominant in the game for the past three seasons?

It’s not that his velocity isn’t there. Kimbrel is averaging 96.1 mph on his fastball, just a tad below his career average of 96.2, but what looks to be bothering him is that he’s relying too much on that pitch — and batters are making him pay for it.

The past two seasons, Kimbrel threw his fastball just 69.5 (2011) and 67.6 percent (2012) of the time, mixing in his breaking balls. This year, though, he’s tossing that fastball at a near 80 percent clip and it’s that pitch that the Rockies’ Dexter Fowler (double), the Mets’ David Wright (home run) and now Mesorasco and Choo were waiting on.

This is new territory for Kimbrel. He’s gone through a rough patch before, blowing three saves in a span of 11 appearances from April 21-May 11, 2011, but nothing to this degree. To his credit, he would bounce back by converting 86 of his next 94 chances before his recent woes began in Colorado on April 24.

How will he respond this time?

The answer will certainly define what has been the most consistent and intimidating part of the Braves staff: its bullpen.

2. It almost all came together for Medlen

Kris Medlen had been plagued by two problems throughout his first six starts of the season: early-inning struggles and a lack of run support.

He had little of one and plenty of the other on Tuesday night as Medlen gave up two runs on four hits, including a solo home run by Choo, while striking out six and walking two over seven innings.

Medlen had been undone by troubles in the first and second innings for most of the season with a 6.75 ERA in those frames and allowed two and three runs in his last two outings against the Tigers and Nationals, respectively.

But he retired Cincinnati in order in the first inning and allowed just a walk while facing four batters in the second. It wasn’t until Choo’s homer in the third that Medlen had allowed his first hit.

“He looked really good,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He was mixing some pitches and I think he got hurt on a couple 0-2 or 1-2 pitches that came back over the plate but other than that he did a hell of a job.”

No Braves pitcher has received less support than Medlen from the offense, with its 2.72 runs per game the lowest average for any Atlanta starter (to put that in perspective, Mike Minor at 4.0 runs and Paul Maholm with 4.1 are the next lowest; Tim Hudson leads the staff with 6.8 per).

He would get plenty of breathing room early on as Atlanta scored three runs in the first off, coming via a two-run Brian McCann single, followed by an RBI hit from Dan Uggla.

While he was denied the win, marking the fourth straight Medlen start the Braves have lost, it was his most impressive outing of the year. He held a top-six offense well below its season average of 4.57 runs per game and his command was on as he threw strike 1 to 23 of the 27 Reds he faced.  

3. McCann made his presence felt at the plate

Brian McCann completed his return from offseason shoulder surgery on Monday as he played in his first game of the year and he did draw a six-pitch walk in that win. But it was Tuesday that McCann delivered his first hit and RBI of the season — and the first overall since Oct. 3 — as he singled on a sharp line drive to center off Homer Bailey on a full count to score Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton.

McCann’s next three plate appearances wouldn’t be nearly as productive as he had a line out and two groundouts. That line out to center in the third inning would come on the second pitch, followed by a pair of one-pitch at-bats.

It’s just two games, but there’s one potential trend with McCann to keep an eye on. Over his career, the highest percentage of the time McCann fell behind 0-1 or put the ball into plate on the first pitch (his F-Strike percentage) was 56.7 in 2007.

He’s off to a rough start in 2013 though, facing that count in three of his five chances on Monday and in all four Tuesday for a 77.7 percent F-Strike rate through nine at-bats.

Again, it’s early and McCann is on the wrong end of the learning curve as the pitchers he’s faced have multiple starts under their belts against major leaguers, while the brunt of McCann’s plate appearances have come in rehab games. But in a lineup that’s 18th in the majors in batting (.247 average), it’s worth keeping an eye on.