Three Cuts: Braves blanked again in loss to Brewers
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves' offensive struggles continued in a 4-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday night that featured another benches-clearing incident. Here are three observations on the game:
As Brewers starter Kyle Lohse walked back into the visitor's clubhouse with his second win at Turner Field in as many attempts — the last one, of course, coming in the 2012 one-game wild card with the St. Louis Cardinals — it became increasingly clear that not only are the Braves entrenched in their worst month of baseball this season, but that they are closing out the campaign in worse shape than any other team bound for the postseason besides (maybe) the Rangers.
Atlanta is now 10-13 in September.
The Braves are the coldest contender in baseball at the worst-possible time.
The problems come down to the offense, too, as the pitching staff has pitched well in September. Nothing spectacular, but good enough to win. The bats have gone quiet, though. Even with Jason Heyward re-entering the lineup — albeit not the everyday lineup just yet; the Braves are 3-1 in games he's played in this month — Atlanta features a below-average unit veering closer to replacement-level territory. The Braves are hitting just .224/.295/.365 with the fifth-highest strikeout rate in the league.
This isn't exactly Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright taking the hill opposite them, either. The recent offensive ineptitude is in large part coming against the likes of the Brewers (three runs in three games during the series), Cubs and Padres. If any of those teams featured playoff pitching then maybe they'd, you know, be heading to the playoffs.
On Wednesday night, it was Lohse who looked like a Cy Young candidate, pitching a "Maddux" game (complete game, fewer than 100 pitches) by allowing just two hits and no runs on 89 pitches. Eighty-nine pitches over nine innings of work. Lohse has put together a decent season 13th career season, but he's typically challenged a little more than that.
Not a single Braves batter saw more than five pitches on the night.
It was the fourth time in the past 10 games the Braves have been shutout.
"We didn't get good hacks at it," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think at one point in the game (Lohse) only had 40-something pitches. We didn't make him work. We didn't keep the line moving."
With the loss, the Braves fell a half-game behind the Cardinals for home-field advantage leading up to the World Series. That's a big deal for a team that has been so strong at home, but now it's even more important for the Braves' offense to get back on track in its final season series against the Phillies. Whether the scoreboard says home or away doesn't matter if your offense is throwing up goose eggs.
(Side note: It never helps this offense's potency when Heyward is on the bench and its MVP candidate gets ejected before taking a single swing of the bat. For more on that...)
In defense of the Braves, who, as has been established throughout this season, are some of staunchest defenders of the unwritten rules of baseball, it looked like Carlos Gomez went out of his way to hit a 400-foot shot simply to start jawing at Paul Maholm (who hit him in the two teams' previous series) and anyone else who crossed his path. After taking Maholm deep in the first inning, Gomez slow-trotted and began shouting at the Braves' lefty, first baseman Freddie Freeman and, eventually, catcher Brian McCann, who blocked his path to home plate 10 feet up the third-base line.
Gomez never got a chance to officially "score" — the run did count — before the benches cleared and a shoving match ensued.
"He hit a homer. I threw a bad pitch and he decided to act like that. … I guess every guy that hits him he's going to decide to act like that," Maholm said. "I've hit plenty of guys. I've given up homers. He's not the first, he's not the last. But I'm probably going to say he's the last guy that acts like that when he hits a homer."
Added Gonzalez: "It was a weird set of circumstances. I've never seen anything like it in my baseball career, whether in the major leagues, minor league or Little League. … I think there were a lot of guys on both teams that were surprised how it went down. There is some history there. I think by you just hitting a home run, you make a statement. But the way you behave around the bases I think was embarrassing for a professional baseball player to handle himself that way.
Eventually, Gomez, Freeman and Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird were tossed from the game for their part in the altercation. Judging by the replay, it's difficult to tell what exactly Freeman and Laird were specifically ejected for, although crew chief Dana DeMuth labeled Freeman's actions "overaggressive."
Needless to say, Freeman, the Braves best and most consistent offensive player, was less than pleased after getting tossed without a single plate appearance.
"I was throwing haymakers all over the place. I had ice on my hands afterwards because it hurt so bad," said a sarcastic Freeman after the game. "I didn't throw one punch. I just told (Gomez) to act like he'd done it before around the bases and start running and then, you know, the altercation at home plate. And I just came in and kind of moved the pile a little bit. I suppose I hit a lot of people in the face with punches."
Perhaps it's a testament to Gomez's actions that McCann, the most visibly heated Braves player and the one who actually initiated the physical confrontation, did not get ejected as well.
Though it's easy to point at the Braves' history of this kind of combativeness (See: Bryce Harper; Jose Fernandez), it's safe to say there aren't too many teams out there that would have put up with Gomez's verbally degrading their pitcher on the mound following a home run. There was something more to this incident than simply "pimping" a well-hit home run deep to left-center; this was about some semblance of revenge that Gomez had on his mind. For his part, following the lead of Fernandez a couple weeks ago, Gomez apologized after the game.
Admiring home runs is one thing — it's discouraged by an outdated precedent that baseball players and managers perpetuate by using 95-mph fastballs as weapons against offenders and/or offenders' teammates; as I wrote following the Fernandez game in Miami, baseball could use more personality, not less — but running around the bases like this is just asking for trouble. Especially against the Braves.
"I think any baseball person — whether you are in the stands, watching the game in the dugout or watching the replay on TV — would be astonished what went around the bases," Gonzalez said.
Lost in the shuffle of the pseudo-brawl, is that the "Paul Maholm or Freddy Garcia" campaign for the Braves' No. 4 postseason continues to develop. Despite giving up the well-publicized home run in the first, Maholm still turned in a respectable line overall: seven innings pitched, three runs on eight hits allowed, seven strikeouts and zero walks. For his efforts, he pushed his ERA down to 4.41 and his FIP down to 4.23 — not overpowering stuff, but just enough to warrant consideration for a possible postseason start.
"He gave us a great opportunity to win the ballgame," Gonzalez said.
Since the Braves brass elected to utilize rookie Alex Wood (3-3, 3.20 ERA, 2.69 FIP) exclusively out of the bullpen throughout the playoffs, a move that strengthens the team's long-relief options but takes away a strong second-half starter, the choice for the fourth starter will likely come down to Maholm and Garcia. And as underwhelming as the options may seem from a big picture perspective, neither veteran has significantly hurt his chances down the stretch.
In his past five starts, dating back to Aug. 28 against Cleveland, Maholm has pitched nearly 30 innings with an ERA of 3.99. He's struck out 19 and walked just eight over that span.
Since debuting in a Braves uniform on Sept. 1, Garcia has been eve better (although partially in relief): 27 1/3 innings pitched, 1.65 ERA and 20 strikeouts to just five walks. It's truly been a remarkable turnaround for a guy who could not cut it in the Orioles rotation this season. Is it enough to persuade the Braves to hand him the ball come October? It didn't sound like Maholm wants that to happen when discussing his non-Gomez performance on Wednesday night.
"I felt good. Obviously that pitch wasn't good to (Gomez). And they got a couple dink hits to get the other runs in, but, you know, I felt good," Maholm said. "Obviously made it through seven and no issues with my arm at all. Hopefully pitched well enough and we're gonna have to see how it plays out."