Three Cuts: Miller’s gem not enough as Braves fall to Giants

Braves pitchers allowed six runs in the eighth inning of Thursday night's 7-0 loss to the Giants.

Kelley L Cox/Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves fell back below .500 with a 7-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Thursday night, nullifying another strong start from Shelby Miller. Here are three observations from the game:

The sentiment that the Braves significantly upgraded their low-scoring 2014 offense during a busy offseason has dissipated of late. It’s true Atlanta’s hitters got off to an encouraging start — including an unsustainably hot stretch from catcher A.J. Pierzynski — but reality, or whatever it is that has the Braves scoring just 11 runs over the past 64 innings, has set in during the month of May.

The Braves were shut out for the third time in seven games during Thursday night’s loss, this time coming against rookie Chris Heston making his 11th career start. Something has to give. Yes, the Braves have hovered around the .500 mark for the past couple of weeks, better than plenty of other MLB clubs, but they are now minus-21 in run differential and trending in the wrong direction.

Close wins and lopsided losses are not the formula for long-term success.

And when a team’s top starting pitcher is taking the blame for a loss because of one bad pitch, which led to the only run he allowed in seven innings, it’s more of an indictment of said team’s run support than anything else.

"It was a bad pitch. I go back and look at the video and it’s down the middle, a four-seamer. If I can take it back, I would," Miller said of the Giants’ go-ahead homer in the seventh inning. "It’s a tough hit to give at that point in the ballgame. … It’s something I can’t do right there. I’m taking the blame on that loss."

Star first baseman Freddie Freeman still hasn’t broken out of his slump. The acquisition of Juan Uribe, a presumed upgrade at third base, has yet to pay significant dividends. A select few players are blameless during this cold stretch — Atlanta’s two hottest hitters entering the game, Cameron Maybin and Nick Markakis, combined to go 0 for 7 with three strikeouts on Thursday — but now that the Braves’ starting pitching has found its form, the run support needs to ditch the disappearing act.

Miller’s overwhelming success despite situation and opponent begs the question: At what point is this just the new normal? Entering the season as the de facto No. 3 behind young rotation stalwarts Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, there’s little debating Miller’s ace-type numbers (although Wood is not as far behind as Miller’s All-Star numbers might suggest) and his immediate contributions to a team that has desperately needed them.

With a seven-inning outing against the San Francisco Giants — a top-five offense in a road environment — Miller vaulted himself back into a tie for the MLB lead with an unfair 1.48 ERA.

"He did his part. Tremendous outing," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You figure every time you go out there and let up one run you’ve got a really good chance to win the ballgame."

Perhaps the more interesting note is how he went about his business.

Miller allowed just five hits and refused to walk a batter for the first time this season. That lone earned run came on a solo blast from Giants first baseman Brandon Belt in the seventh. Other than that, Giants hitters made contact often, Miller struck out a season-low one batter, but found little success.

This is becoming a theme for Miller, whose "controllable" numbers do not suggest such dominance, yet he’s putting up more zeros on the scoreboard than any other pitcher around right now. He’s striking out fewer than seven batters per nine innings and benefitting from a ridiculous .174 batting average on balls in play. Many have pointed to his improved sinker, though his ground-ball rate (49.2) doesn’t rank in the top-30 among qualified pitchers.

"I felt like the sinker might’ve been the best it’s been all year. I felt like we got a lot of groundballs early in the game, getting some guys to pull the ball out of the batter’s box right-handed, got some groundballs," Miller said. "Like I said, just that one bad pitch that initially lost us the ballgame."

Speaking of those "controllable" stats, or peripherals, his 3.37 fielding-independent pitching also wouldn’t rank in the top-30 entering Thursday’s games. All of this suggests that Miller has pitched very, very well — just maybe not well enough to be repeatedly thrown into the company of Greg Maddux. (Only Maddux posted a lower ERA — twice — through the first 46 games of a Braves season.) Not that the Braves are complaining. They have much bigger fish to fry after dropping below .500 once again.

Miller has by far and away been the highlight of Atlanta’s season. That wasn’t enough to overcome another no-show performance from his offense or to prevent a bullpen meltdown, but it at least provides some silver lining to a forgettable performance.

Miller’s line forced Gonzalez into a difficult decision in the eighth inning. Trailing 1-0 following the Belt homer, Gonzalez considered leaving his starter in to hit and therefore pitching into the eighth. Miller was still cruising. But in discussing the decision-making process, Gonzalez outlined exactly what has been going wrong for the team of late.

"You wanna go for the win there, do you wanna go for the tie, do you wanna leave Shelby in there and let him keep pitching," Gonzalez said of the eighth-inning call to pinch-hit for Miller, "it’s really a lot of stuff up in the air because he’s pitching so good, our bullpen right now in that situation is kinda up in the air when we’re down and our offense is struggling to score runs.

" … "In my mind I was thinking if he gets out of the seventh inning I was going to let him hit in the eighth. He was that dominant. And even when (Andrelton) Simmons leads off the eighth I’m thinking leave him in the game, bunt him over, do something. We tried to get the W there, get a run and it didn’t happen."

If there’s a spot more sore than the offense, it’s the Braves’ bullpen at the moment.

Over the past two weeks, the group has posted the second-worst overall numbers in baseball (-0.3 WAR in 34 2/3 innings). Things didn’t get much better in AT&T Park. Miller left a 1-0 game with one guaranteed inning remaining and was stuck discussing a 7-0 blowout in the clubhouse. Gonzalez turned to Brandon Cunniff, one of the team’s better relievers this season, and Donnie Veal down the stretch.

Those two combined to allow seven hits, one walk, one wild pitch and six earned runs in the eighth inning.

The game quickly devolved from low-scoring nail-biter to a rout.

Atlanta needs to find some answers in multiple spots.