Three Cuts: Wood enjoys superb two-way day; Braves fall to Nats late

Against the Nationals on Sunday, Braves southpaw Alex Wood was a force on the mound (allowing zero runs after the 1st) and at the plate (collecting his first three-hit game in the majors).

Brad Mills

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Here are three detailed, but random takes from the Braves’ 5-4 loss to the Nationals on Sunday (my first road trip of the MLB season) — a back-and-forth nail-biter which resulted in Atlanta getting swept for the second time this year:

Officially, Wood surrendered three earned runs in the first inning, primarily the result of three straight consecutive hits from the Nationals’ Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos.

However, Braves center fielder Cameron Maybin was in solid position to catch Harper’s 400-foot double with two outs, getting a lot of glove on the ball … before hitting the outfield wall and ultimately failing to corral the catch.

That defensive miscue would pave the way for two more Washington runs that inning, putting the score at a gloomy 3-0.

"If we catch the ball in the center field, we don’t give up three runs — the inning’s over," lamented Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez, while addressing the media after the game.

On the surface, it appeared that Wood — sporting a 4.32 ERA heading into the weekend — would be chased from the mound sooner than later. But it merely marked the low point of a sneaky-good outing for the southpaw, allowing three runs, eight scattered hits and one walk over 6 2/3 innings — while fanning seven batters.

"I thought Woody was terrific. … He didn’t give any (at-bats) away — none whatsoever," marveled Gonzalez. "Woody was a bulldog every step of the way, in line to get the win."

Of equal importance, Wood would also kill the Nationals’ rally in the 5th, picking off Dan Uggla at second base with two outs — an original ‘safe’ call that was overturned by instant replay.

But the fun didn’t stop there for Wood, batting in the customary 9-slot, who tallied three hits off Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann (33 combined wins, 343 strikeouts for 2013-14) and collected one RBI for the day (scoring Jace Peterson).

Before Sunday, Wood had a grand total of three hits in the majors.

When discussing his day at the plate, Wood was asked to recall his last three-hit outing.

"Oh god, high school — easily; and it didn’t come very often in high school," said Wood, trying to force a smile after the loss. "But putting up zeroes (as a pitcher), as long as I can, that’s the most important thing."

The only drawback for Wood: The Braves bullpen (more on this group later) couldn’t hang onto the lead in the 8th, giving up two crucial runs and precluding Wood from earning his second victory.

After the game, Gonzalez revealed that Grilli — who last pitched on May 6 (four days ago) and has only seen the mound twice in May — has been temporarily sidelined with back spasms.

Grilli’s ailment doesn’t seem like one that’s destined for the 15-day disabled list, but it did prompt Jim Johnson’s battlefield promotion as the temporary closer — although he hasn’t had a save opportunity since April 18 (against the Blue Jays).

"(Grilli’s) getting better, getting closer," says Gonzalez. He then added: "We’ll see how quickly we get him back on the field."

With Grilli out, the Atlanta bullpen might be feeling pressure to carry a greater burden than previous weeks.

The eighth inning on Sunday was particularly gruesome: With the Braves (14-17) holding a 4-3 lead, reliever Cody Martin allowed a leadoff single to Ian Desmond and a walk to Jayson Werth — setting the stage for a less-than-ideal showdown with Bryce Harper, who belted six total homers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Martin won the isolated battle, forcing Harper to pop out to shortstop (infield fly rule). But Ryan Zimmerman turned things around immediately, cracking an RBI single (scoring Desmond).

Ramos then put the game on ice, crushing a tailing line drive to right field that sailed over Nick Markakis’ head and brought home the go-ahead run.

Quite frankly, the Braves’ debacle could have been a lot worse … if Werth and Ramos hadn’t been thrown out while running the bases — two inexcusable gaffes that might have been put under the microscope, if Washington had squandered the lead in the 9th.

But that wasn’t in the cards, as Nationals closer Drew Storen (nine saves in 2015) had a 1- 2-3 inning against Freddie Freeman (two hits, two runs on Sunday), Jonny Gomes and Alberto Callaspo to clinch the victory.

For the weekend, the Atlanta bullpen had a three-outing ERA of 14.75, giving up 10 runs over 6 2/3 innings.

Technically, Julio Teheran serves as the Braves’ ace, a credit to his sterling thre-year track record, blossoming potential and capacity for 15-plus wins and 185 strikeouts by season’s end.

From a numbers perspective, though, Miller (4-1, 1.66 ERA, 0.97 WHIP) has been Atlanta’s pitching MVP to date — and the only dominant asset for a Braves rotation that, on the whole, owns a middle-of-the-pack ranking after 30-plus games.

Up Next: Braves @ Reds

Why am I bringing this up now? Well, ‘ace’ pitchers should always carry the burden of stopping losing streaks, even modest three-game slides over a single weekend.

In Miller’s case, he also needs to give the bullpen some rest on Monday … or at the very least, spare them from being put in untenable situations early in games.

This is the problem with long road trips. Poor play and/or unfortunate bounces tend to snowball when playing away from home.

For what it’s worth, Miller has a career ERA of 3.97 (and 20/8 K-BB rate) at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark — one of the National League’s most notorious bandboxes.