Three Cuts: Wild pitches cost Braves in loss to Marlins

Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna scored the game-winning run in the Braves' 3-2 loss on Thursday night.

Jason Getz/Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, the usual ninth-inning ace up the franchise’s sleeve, suffered a bit of misfortune of Thursday night while accepting his second loss of the season in a 3-2 loss to division rival Miami. Though he allowed just one single and didn’t give up a walk, Kimbrel was charged with the game-winning run. It was the Braves’ ninth loss in their past 16 games. Here are three observations from the game:

Craig Kimbrel got the strikeout he wanted. He just didn’t get the out.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez brought in his All-Star closer in the ninth inning to protect a 2-2 tie with the middle of the Braves order due up in the bottom half of the frame, and for a minute everything was running on schedule. Kimbrel immediately struck out Garrett Jones and stared down speedy outfielder Marcell Ozuna. On 2-2 count, Kimbrel made his pitch: a curveball that dove into the dirt. Ozuna bit, handing Kimbrel his second strikeout with a swinging miss.

However, the ball ricocheted off catcher Evan Gattis’ leg and rolled far enough away to allow Ozuna to reach first base on a wild pitch.

"I was trying to throw a pitch, a strikeout pitch, and it just got away from me a little bit. Unfortunately the ball skipped away a little too far and he got on first," Kimbrel said. "That’s part of baseball. Not everything goes perfectly every time you go out there."

Yet another wild pitch allowed Ozuna to advance to second base and just like that the Marlins were in business with just one out and a runner in scoring position — a result that Gonzalez mentioned changed the dynamic of the game. The margin for error disappeared. So when Kimbrel hung a curveball to Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which he lined back up the middle, the game was decided. Ozuna was just too fast for B.J. Upton’s accurate throw.

Two wild pitches and everything changed. The Braves enjoyed a couple loud outs against Miami closer Steve Cishek in the bottom of the ninth, but the 3-2 score held.

"Tough way to lose the game tonight," said Gonzalez, who put the responsibility for the loss on his offense’s quiet night. "We get the freak ball that gets off Gattis’ shinguard and goes away. And then you got the wild pitch and they bloop one in there and then you lose the game with the best closer in the game on the mound."

It was a disappointing end to a game that saw plenty of highlight individual performances, not the least of which was starter Aaron Harang, who just continues to plug away with positive results. Even against a team he’s struggled with throughout his career, he navigated his way through seven frames with minimal damage done.

This was the antithesis to most Harang starts this season. Where postgame interviews with manager Fredi Gonzalez typically reveal praise for the veteran’s craftiness and ability to shake off early troubles to post a solid outing (there have been plenty), this one was different.

Harang got off to an excellent start, as did the Braves offense. He struck out young Marlins standout Christian Yelich to start the game and cruised through the first three innings, allowing just two hits. Things got rockier in the fourth, the Marlins tied the game in the fifth at 2-2 and Harang flirted with yet another poor outcome against the Miami franchise — he owned a 6.25 career ERA against the Marlins entering the night — before exiting with a no-decisions. Fast start, slower finish, similar result.

Harang finished with five strikeouts and two walks while allowing seven hits, lowing his ERA and FIP. In some ways, he out-pitched Marlins All-Star starter Henderson Alvarez, who settled in after giving up an early homer. Very little of that mattered by the time Ozuna crossed the plate, though.

The Braves are now 3-4 after the All-Star break, and have slipped to 1 1/2 games behind the Nationals in NL East.

"We’re not worried about it," Harang said of the division race. "We’ve still got nine games left with the Nationals, too. It’s still early. There’s no reason to panic. … I think we can make those games up."

The Chris Johnson power surge is real, so it’s probably best not to throw to him right down the center of the plate right now. Alvarez was the latest victim of Atlanta’s "slugger" after leaving a fastball right out over the plate, which Johnson planted in the left-field seats and inspired this bold and uncoordinated act. All of this puts him right about on pace to match his 12 home runs from a season ago, a feat very few would have thought possible heading into the All-Star break.

Instead, Johnson has been all over opposing pitchers in the past two weeks, giving the Braves more than enough pop from the Nos. 6 and 7 holes.

Through the first 90 games this season, Johnson claimed just three home runs. In other words, he was one of the least powerful everyday corner infielders in baseball, and his offensive numbers in other areas weren’t exactly helping his cause (.270/.293/.348). He hadn’t missed time, either. That was three homers in 363 plate appearances. But in the 37 plate appearances since, he’s more than doubled his total, parking five balls in the outfield seats. Interestingly enough, not a single one was a solo shot. So what’s working?

"We’ve been working on a couple of different things in the cage as far as my contact point and stuff like that. Still kinda tweaking with it," Johnson said. "I think that I have that power, I just need to learn how to use it. … Most of the time, for me, I like to see the ball deep, get the ball deep, and use the opposite field. But when I do find myself in good counts, I can start to look for some pitches and maybe shift that contact point out a little bit farther and get that ball up in the air.

Johnson is now hitting .277/.300/.390 with 42 runs driven in — certainly not great numbers, but after this much playing time it can be tough to pull the overall slash line up. He’s still in a good stretch regardless. After posting 126 weighted runs created last season, comfortably above league average, he’s back to 91 this season.

Has he been a productive everyday player in 2014? Marginally, as his defense doesn’t exactly make up for offensive slumps. He still owned a 0.4 WAR heading into Thursday’s game, but that’s on the rise. Here’s his month-to-month production (in terms of weighted runs created):

That July rate will increase following Thursday’s outing. Even when the organization signed him to a three-year extension earlier this season, general manager Frank Wren made it clear that they do not expect Johnson to ever be a 30-homer hitter. But hitting three in 90 games is not what they had in mind, so, if only in terms of power, it’s a positive that Johnson is getting back on track.

"I’m not saying I’m a power hitter or can hit for power like Justin (Upton) and Freddie (Freeman) and those guys, but I can do it every now and then," Johnson said. "They come in bunches."

Looking back at Justin Upton’s 2013 campaign, the first thing that comes to mind is his record-breaking (and absurd) month of April, where he hit .298/.402/.734 with 12 home runs and generally made the Diamondbacks look like they traded him for scraps, relatively speaking. Those 12 homers are easy to recall, and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future.

It’s a little more difficult to keep in mind that despite that month of excellence, Upton was a second-half player last season. For the most part, he has his lackluster months of May and June to thank for that — something had to dramatically offset his 207 weighted runs created in April — but he finished the season with two solid months and one outstanding one (August). After the ’13 All-Star Game, to which he was not invited, uptown cut down on his strikeouts, topped his first-half average by 20 points and basically adopted a more balanced approach at the plate.

In fact, in each of Upton’s past four seasons he’s improved his numbers in the second half. (There’s a top-five NL MVP finish in there, too, and he tore the cover off the ball down that 2011 stretch.)

All of this sets up the fact that Upton is in a serious zone lately. His July numbers are bested only by his excellent April ones — hint: do not challenge Justin Upton next April — and he’s once again adopted a more balanced approach at the plate. Over his past 16 games, he’s hitting (22/59) with a (29/69) on-base percentage and two homers. He’s reached base safely in all but one of those games and posted nine multi-hit games in the meantime.

It’s an extremely small sample size, but Upton’s second half is off to a hot start and history says he settles in around this time of year. He’s poised to give Freeman and Evan Gattis a run for the best offensive numbers on the team at season’s end.