Three Cuts: Braves fall short, drop series in loss to Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies tagged Braves starter Ervin Santana with four runs, including an unearned one by outfielder Domonic Brown on a passed ball in the fourth inning.

Todd Kirkland/AP

ATLANTA — Ervin Santana still can’t find his early-season magic and the Atlanta Braves’ offense still has difficulty putting runs across the plate. Atlanta’s 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night secured the three-game series loss and dropped them into second place in the National League East behind the Washington Nationals, a precarious and intriguing place to be as the rivals’ four-game set approaches. Here are three observations from the game:

The act of watching Ervin Santana pitch over the past two months often times seems like a waiting game — patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop. Only it’s the good shoe. Whereas it’s a similar practice for Santana’s fellow free agent pickups Aaron Harang and Gavin Floyd, the expectations are different. With Harang and Floyd, the prospective "other shoe" would be a decline in production back to their recent pre-Atlanta years. In Santana’s case, it’s a matter of improvement.

In all three cases, the other shoe remains in some unseen, lofty place.

It is only Santana, though, that creates a notable cause for concern, and not just because he’s the only one of the group not pitching above replacement level lately.

His outing against Philadelphia became the fifth time in his past seven starts that he’s allowed four or more runs. He owns a 6.17 ERA over that stretch. Of course, one of the Phillies’ runs came on a passed ball, but he still put the runner, Domonic Brown, on third base and his numbers across the board worsened on Tuesday night: ERA, strikeout rate, walk rate, fielding-independent pitching (FIP), ground ball percentage, pretty much everything. Overall, Santana pitched six innings, allowed eight hits and three walks, struck out five and only once made it through a clean frame.

"I thought his command was better. I thought his secondary pitches were better," manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Santana’s outing against the Phillies. " … He would have had a really, really good outing (without some defensive miscues). And I still think with him giving us six innings and he would have been out there in the seventh if it wasn’t for the pitch count. It got up pretty high (110 pitches), uncomfortable for me to run him back out there. I thought he did OK."

Taking the loss in a 4-2 game is a non-issue. Even the fact that Kyle Kendrick out-pitched him is a non-issue (in this situation).

The problem for Santana stems from the fact that he hasn’t pieced together back-to-back strong starts since mid-April. That was when he was carrying a sub-2.00 ERA and Atlanta looked like it found an absolute gem just waiting to be picked up on the open market after Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were lost for the season.

The outlook isn’t quite as rosy nowadays. Maybe it’s because more and more teams have caught up on his scouting report, including a changeup that he’s still using more than ever before but with far less success than earlier in the year, but Santana’s numbers just continue to spiral in the wrong direction for a team that needs every bit of stability in its rotation considering the offense’s challenges. One look at Santana’s monthly splits highlights just where he’s at right now:

For his part, the 31-year-old holds steadfast to the position that he’s going to rediscover his early-season success. His confidence, at least in the clubhouse, hasn’t wavered since he arrived, which is likely a byproduct of coming off his best season in five years and signing a lucrative one-year deal, but he’s not oblivious. He’s gone through struggles in the past — although he said this recent spell is nothing like his 2012 campaign (minus-1.0 WAR through 178 innings).

"A little bit frustrated," Santana said of his past seven starts. "But at the same time, you know, this is a team. We play as a team. We win as a team, we lose as a team. So I know we (are having) ups and downs right now, but at the same time we just have to keep our minds positive. … I know I’m close to it, to get out of this. Just have to keep making good pitches. That’s it."

The Braves will need him to. With a $14 million price tag, he’s not a candidate to take out of the rotation once lefty Alex Wood gets stretched out at Triple-A Gwinnett. The franchise went way over its projected payroll to go out and sign Santana, so they are tied to him for the ’14 campaign. The numbers weren’t catastrophic and the offense had more than enough opportunity to steal this win, but 110 pitches in six innings is telling. Santana is still looking for his post-spring form.

Kyle Kendrick’s entire career has been marked by steady success against the Braves. Coming into Tuesday night’s game, he owned a 7-2 record with a 3.28 ERA in 21 appearances against the Phillies’ NL East rivals dating back to the 2007 season. And if the Braves thought they were beginning to get Kendrick’s number over the past two seasons — he allowed 16 earned runs in his previous six appearances against Atlanta — he quickly regained the upper hand at Turner Field.

Kendrick, who entered the game with a 4.09 ERA and 4.55 FIP this season, kept the Braves’ offense off-balance through seven innings of work. He allowed just two runs on six hits, striking out six and walking just one. The runs he did give up came on a Jason Heyward single and a Gerald Laird grounder that ended up as a double-play ball that traded two outs for one run in the seventh.

It was typical Kyle Kendrick against divisional opponents not named "Nationals." He’s done this to the Braves, Marlins and Mets with regularity over the years. Of course, Kendick didn’t have to face Evan Gattis and Justin Upton for the majority of the game, but his career results are there for the taking.

"We knew what we were getting coming into the game," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "He’s got good stuff, pounds the zone. He’s got so many different pitches, so many different variations of those pitches, he throws the ball where he wants to throw it. He keeps you off-balance from at-bat to at-bat.

Added Heyward: "His ERA does not show how tough he is. He’s selective. He’s got some velocity obviously, got a slider and a curveball."

Thanks to Kendrick, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett, the Braves have been held to two runs or fewer in four of their five meetings with the Phillies.

Prior to Tuesday night’s one-run effort, Gonzalez stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the dugout — the evening’s downpour was in full effect at the time — and weighed in on the state of the NL East. In that moment, his Braves team held a half-game lead in the division despite posting a 19-26 record in the months of May and June.

Gonzalez was diplomatic in his approach, saying that the division will likely come down to how the teams within it play against one another. That’s a pretty sound strategy, especially coming from a guy with the knowledge that his team has absolutely owned the other primary contender.

The Braves are the kooky team of the NL East. They own winning records against the Washington Nationals (5-1) and Miami Marlins (5-4) — the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the division — while playing .500 ball against the beleaguered New York Mets and sub.-500 ball against this Phillies team (2-3). For comparison’s sake, the Nationals are 14-6 this season when playing the other three NL East teams.

They haven’t played well, either, winning just 19 of their past 46 games.

This series against the Phillies is one of the few being played at Turner Field this month, and given the general state of the Philadelphia franchise at the bottom of perhaps the worst division in baseball, it was a series Atlanta needed. Too late for that.

All momentum the Braves had coming out of a hard-fought three-game stretch against the Angels disappeared on Tuesday, with just an afternoon matinee game separating them from an 11-game road trip. That road trip looks much less daunting on paper than their previous West Coast swing, but considering eight games come against the Phillies and Nationals, there are big implications as the All-Star break approaches. Gonzalez’s club will need to come out on the right side of his prediction and play well against its NL East foes if it wants to hold the division’s top spot at the halfway point.