Three Cuts: Walks, bullpen struggles trigger Braves loss against D-backs

The Atlanta Braves could not hold on to a late lead at Chase Field on Tuesday night, falling to the Arizona Diamondbacks 7-6 to fall back to .500. Here are three observations from the game:

Atlanta found some two-out magic in the sixth inning. Trailing 4-1 following the rare lackluster start from Shelby Miller, the offense was threatening to strand yet another runner. Jace Peterson’s leadoff single was followed by two quick outs, but then the middle of the lineup started piecing together quality at-bats. Nick Markakis’ double was followed by a Juan Uribe walk to load the bases — opening the door for three straight RBI hits from A.J. Pierzynski, Jonny Gomes and Todd Cunningham to break open a 6-4 lead.

It was an impressive comeback.

It lasted less than two innings.

The relief combination of Nick Masset and Brandon Cunniff continued the ongoing struggles of the Braves’ bullpen, combining to give up three hits, four walks and three runs to blow the lead, resulting in the 7-6 loss. Cunniff’s fastball to Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock ended up in the outfield pool for the game-winning hit. Lefty reliever Luis Avilan pitched well in the eighth and final inning, but the damage was already done.

"Four walks out of the bullpen. One to lead off an inning, one with two outs, nobody on. Those hurt," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose team issued 10 walks in the loss. "You can’t be walking people in those middle innings when you’re out of the bullpen.

" … It’s kinda demoralizing a little bit sometimes when your team’s battling and battling, they’re fighting and scratching and clawing for runs. You see it in the eyes of the position players sometimes. And you know what, it’s nobody’s fault, really. But you don’t want too many more of these."

This is an odd situation for Gonzalez to be in. Late leads have been remarkably safe during his tenure, aided by excellent work from pitching coach Roger McDowell and bargain finds from former general manager Frank Wren, but the offseason reshuffle has the team searching for answers. Sixteen different relievers have pitched for Atlanta this season, and very few have found sustained success.

The team entered the game ranked last in the majors with a negative-0.5 bullpen WAR and 4.50 FIP. It could very well be the worst bullpen in baseball through the first 50-plus games. That’s coming off a three-year run where the team’s 2.83 reliever ERA was the best in baseball by a mile.

The tables have certainly turned.

(The Braves traded away many of their key pitching contributors from the past few years — David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro, Jordan Walden, Chasen Shreve — with another key piece, Shae Simmons, on the disabled list for the foreseeable future. None of those names loom larger than Craig Kimbrel, but it’s worth mentioning that the closer spot is not the problem. Jason Grilli owns a respectable 3.04 FIP and has saved 15 of his 16 opportunities. As for Kimbrel, who may still be the best closer in baseball, his current 4.74 ERA wouldn’t be some magic solution here.)

Avilan has bounced back well, while newcomers Grilli and Jim Johnson boast quality numbers, but the Braves have to find ways to shore up their middle relief in order to bridge the gap.

"I think we’ve lost five games on this road trip and they all happened to be right there in those (middle) innings, that we can’t get the ball to Johnson or Grilli," Gonzalez said. "When we do that, we have a good chance to win a ballgame."

The Braves’ veteran right fielder is a far cry from the hitter that posted back-to-back 20-homer seasons in 2007 and 2008 in Baltimore, a multifaceted threat at the plate. Markakis posted a 10.1 WAR in those two seasons, but injuries have contributed to a slow decline in power ever since. In his final 1,400-plus plate appearances as an Orioles standout, he amassed just 24 home runs.

That trend has stretched into his tenure as a Braves standout — though it’s not exactly posing a problem. Fifty-two games into the season, Markakis has yet to leave the yard. His slugging percentage is sitting at the second-lowest mark of his career, and that’s only because of his strong performance on Tuesday night. All of this is to say that Markakis is not struggling without the crutch of power, but rather that he’s reinvented himself as a hitter that feasts on singles and doubles.

Markakis finished with two doubles against the Diamondbacks to push his slash line to .299/.387/.361 on the year. He leads the team in walks (by a short mile) and owns a selective 13.8 strikeout rate.

The list of Atlanta newcomers that needed to perform entering this season goes on and on — Peterson and Uribe reached base twice, Pierzynski and Gomes came up with big hits and Cunningham continues to be a nice addition — but Markakis is the one carrying the highest expectations.

To date, he’s been a steadying presence the Braves paid him to be this offseason.

Shelby Miller has staked his claim as one of the National League’s top pitchers, but his numbers have continuously hinted at future regression. Not dramatic regression, but something worse than a 1.48 ERA and ,202 batting average on balls in play. Coming off his worst outing in a Braves uniform, could more trouble be on the horizon?

Sure, Miller looked more like the sophomore pitcher that labored through the 2014 season in St. Louis than the newfound Braves star on Tuesday. He tied season highs with six walks and four earned runs. He allowed an additional six hits and offset those with just two strikeouts. He lasted just 4 1/3 innings — perhaps the worst thing for a manager trusting a bullpen that can’t put up zeros. "He was battling mechanics a little bit," Gonzalez said. "His command was not like I’ve seen it before. … He wasn’t right from the very beginning."

A few things: Miller’s previous worst outing, according to FIP, was a six-hit, three-walk outing against Cincinnati where he gave up two home runs. He followed that up by allowing one run over his next 25 innings pitched, including a complete-game shutout and a near-no-hitter in Miami. He’s shown he can bounce back. Second, top pitchers scatter in poor outings from time to time. This is normal. And third? The Diamondbacks entered the game with the third-highest scoring team in the majors.

In short, "Not really."

The bullpen is the issue at hand.

Miller should be the least of this team’s concerns right now.