ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves’ slump is far from over, but a three-run outburst in the sixth inning was all starter Alex Wood and his bullpen needed on Wednesday night, taking down the Washington Nationals 3-1 in the series finale. It was Atlanta’s first win in six games, halting a slide that has buried them in the National League wildcard race. Here are three observations from the game:
There was no champagne or firemen helmets or ski goggles being passed around in the Braves clubhouse on Wednesday night, but there was music. Loud music. The type of music the Braves players have heard so infrequently after games over the past two months.
As manager Fredi Gonzalez stood in his office around the corner, he wasn’t forced to resort to cliches about "battling" until the end of the game or explain why his offense wasn’t producing. Instead, he was afforded the opportunity to tell a few jokes and discuss music.
"We get to play the music," Gonzalez said on the importance of the win. "Our chairman came in and goes, ‘It’s nice to come down the hallway when the music is blaring. That’s always a good sign.’"
And he’s correct: that’s about where the significance ended on Wednesday night. Music lightened the mood, but the task is no less daunting.
Entering the series finale with a towering climb in the NL wildcard standings, the Braves made zero progress by taking down a Nationals team that rested everyday players Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and projected starter Gio Gonzalez. The leaders for the wildcard’s second spot, the Pirates, dominated the Red Sox 9-1, meaning the 5 1/2-game deficit remained intact.
This win, regardless of competition or quality, was just about a team getting back on its collective feet. A loss to a de facto ‘B’ team — Washington spot starter Blake Treinen gave Turner Field a scare, pitching five shutout innings and lowing his career ERA to 1.94 before being pulled after 55 pitches — would have been rock bottom, if that wasn’t already hit after getting swept by the lowly Rangers.
"Now, for us, every game is big," Gonzalez said. "Every game is Game 7. We’ve gotta try to win every single game you can."
The Braves now get the New York Mets (73-80) and then the four-game series that still has them, mathematically speaking, alive in this postseason hunt: a home set against the Pirates. They’ll have to play better for that to happen, though. The Braves have still lost five straight series and been shut out in 25 of their past 27 innings. But a win is a win.
Fredi Gonzalez & Co. aren’t in a position to be picky right now.
"Let’s keep the music going for a long time," Gonzalez said. "See what happens."
Strange as it may sound, there are some positives that have come out of this current offensive drought the Braves find themselves in. Of course, it’s unlikely those positives will include the words "postseason" or "successful," but desperate times and injuries have forced some young players into action — and they’ve played well.
Atlanta rookies Christian Bethancourt and Phil Gosselin have taken on prominent roles down the stretch this September, and if there are bright spots to find in a 4-11 record, the call-ups have a claim. Bethancourt has started eight straight games at catcher, helping pitchers hold opponents to 3.6 runs per game while coming up with seven hits and four RBI. Gosselin has made himself useful at the top of Gonzalez’s lineup, quickly warranting more and more playing time: he’s hit in the Nos. 1 or 2 holes in 10 of the past 11 games.
There are 103 plate appearances on the books for Gosselin and the franchise has to like what it’s seen. He’s hitting .309/.343/.381 for 106 weighted runs created plus.
"Knock on wood," Gonzalez said of Gosselin’s performance. "He’s been everywhere, play him at short, play him at second, some at third. He gives you good, solid, Major League Baseball at-bats."
Bethancourt isn’t quite there — he’s hitting .262/.287/.274 in 88 plate appearances — but his primary strength was meant to be his defense anyways. (And yes, he threw out a baserunner on Wednesday.) It was Bethancourt that drove in the three runs on the night on a deflected single that went into the outfield with bases loaded, scoring the first two runners before Jason Heyward read a mental lapse from Washington right fielder Nate Schierholtz and took home on a lackadaisical throw.
"The only way to get more comfortable in those (big) situations is to be in them," Heyward said of his catcher.
Atlanta had not scored more than three runs since Sept. 10, and there they were matching that total in one inning. Of course, the rest of the night fell short, but Bethancourt’s hit at least provided some positive energy for a team needing truckloads of it.
Barring some magical run to the playoffs, the real result in this experience is that both rookies look like they will not only challenge for spots on the Opening Day roster in 2015 … but challenge for starting spots.
In what was initially diagnosed as strep throat, Braves catcher Evan Gattis has missed game after game over the past week-plus. On Wednesday evening, general manager Frank Wren revealed that Gattis, in fact, has a kidney stone in addition to (or because of) the strep-like symptoms, which has kept him out of the lineup since Sept. 7 in Miami.
The good news in this entire uncommon situation is that the catcher’s return may be coming in the near future. Wren said it could be in the next couple of days.
The bad news? It might be too late to really matter, in terms of team performance.
The Braves have now gone 2-7 since Gattis was first held out of the lineup. They’ve scored just 22 runs in those nine games. It’s likely no coincidence that the absence of one of the top three bats on the team has simply decimated an already feeble lineup.
Through 102 games, Gattis is hitting .270/.325/.507 with 22 home runs, and though Bethancourt has held his own at the plate (See: Above) his bat is not quite there yet. It would have been even nicer to have Bethancourt at catcher and Gattis at DH, technically his best-possible "position," during the Rangers sweep.
How devastating has it been for Atlanta to lose it’s top home run threat? Here’s how the National League wildcard standings looked before Gattis exited the lineup:
Now the Braves are all but eliminated from the race with 10 games to play. They’ve been in free fall. Regardless of the opponent, they needed another bat — or five.