Three Cuts: Braves drop series opener to Dodgers
ATLANTA -- Coming off their most successful series since the All-Star break, the Atlanta Braves' wheels once again fell off. The Los Angeles Dodgers pulled away with two big innings in Monday night's 6-2 win, leaving the Braves with their 10th loss in the past 12 games and searching for answers. Here are three observations from the game:
There are a laundry list of things that went wrong in the Braves' 6-2 loss on Monday night, but the most disappointing of all is the timing of the poor performance and what it could mean moving forward. Manager Fredi Gonzalez's club had plenty to feel positive about following a series win against the Washington Nationals after returning home from an eight-game losing streak -- particularly the fact that it cut into the Nats' division lead and helped alleviate the National League's toughest remaining schedule (in terms of opponent winning percentage) -- as it found ways to win both through standout offensive performances and a pitching gem from Alex Wood.
Those good vibes left the stadium with the rest of those in attendance, though.
The Braves are now 8-15 since the beginning of the second half. The only reason its still a relatively close division race in the NL East is that Atlanta has owned their primary rivals head-to-head while the Nationals have also squandered their own opportunities to run away with the division (like the Braves did by going 42-25 after the break last season). It's still just a four-game deficit, but with this scoring-deficient club facing this difficult schedule, the odds continue to diminish.
Only two other teams, the Rockies and the Rangers, have posted a worse record over the past 30 games than the Braves (11-19). Both of those teams are 20-plus games out of their respective division races. The Braves are fortunate enough to be competing in a subpar division, and it's getting more and more difficult to blame their recent record on bad luck.
"It can be frustrating," outfielder Justin Upton said, "but when you start getting frustrated with the game that's when you start trying to do too much and things can go south."
Yes, the starting middle infield missed the majority of the Dodgers series opener -- star defensive shortstop Andrelton Simmons did not play on an injured left ankle while rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella left with a hamstring cramp in the second inning. Yes, defensive miscues hurt Braves starter Julio Teheran's final line of 7 1/3 innings, five earned runs on nine hits and six strikeouts. Yes, the Dodgers hits simply found the holes and neither team put together really solid contact throughout the night.
It still doesn't change the fact that this was a disappointing result for what looked like a promising opportunity.
Winning a series against the division leader before your No. 1 starter takes the mound against, essentially, a journeyman that's serving as the fifth or even sixth guy in the Dodgers' rotation? This one was set up for the Braves to take another step forward. Instead, it looked like two steps back.
And while the defensive issues and pitching letdowns hurt -- the Braves suffered two wild pitches and two walks from Juan Jaime, their lefty specialist that they picked up at the trade deadline, James Russell, can not get lefties out and in the bullpen's only logged strikeout the batter still reached base on a passed ball -- the offense was again the primary problem. Striking out 11 times and walking only once, Atlanta's lineup was held under three runs for the 43rd time this season. And the only reason it scored its second run, posting, in Gonzalez lingo, a crooked number, was the Dodgers allowed Freddie Freeman to take second base with two outs in the ninth inning on defensive indifference, setting up Evan Gattis's RBI double.
In the end, Freeman was the only Braves player to reach base more than once. Three of his teammates logged multiple strikeouts. On the other hand, four Dodgers batters reached base safely on multiple occasions, including the pitcher.
These are the types of quotes Gonzalez has had to give far too often this season: "At the end of the day Julio is going to get the loss, but I thought he pitched better than the numbers are gonna show. Tommorrow morning a guy's gonna wake up and look at he box score and say, 'Julio got beat up pretty good.' I didn't see that."
This team knows it has problems at the plate. When its starting pitcher can't put up an absolute gem like Alex Wood did on Sunday night, it's going to cause problems. And it's getting more and more difficult to ignore those problems as August slowly begins to transition into September. If the Braves can't put up a better performance than a 6-2 loss to the Kevin Correias of the world with Julio Teheran on the mound, this season is going to be limited to 162 games.
"We got hot last year," Upton said. "We just haven't clicked on all cylinders yet."
It certainly didn't help that the latest loss came at the hands of the Dodgers once again. After sweeping Atlanta in Los Angeles last week and taking Monday night's game in convincing fashion, L.A. has won six of the past seven meetings between the two teams, including its NLDS win. And while the Dodgers look like they're on track for a return visit, it's unclear where this Braves season is heading. It's not looking promising, though.
Prior to Monday's game, Gonzalez stood in the Atlanta dugout trying to downplay the team's incredible good fortune of missing Dodger aces Clayton Kershaw, the National League's top arm and arguably the best pitcher on the planet, and Zack Greinke in a four-game series. Thanks to the L.A. franchise looking to give its top starters some extra rest, its probable pitchers entering the series went as follows: Kevin Correia, Dan Haren, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Roberto Hernandez.
For Dodgers opponents, it's usually much worse.
But Gonzalez insisted that his team wasn't looking at it like that, especially since any given pitcher in the majors can come in and pitch an unexpectedly strong outing. What he failed to mention, but perhaps alluded to, was that it could definitely happen to his struggling lineup on any given night. And that's exactly what Correia, who owned so-so career numbers against Atlanta entering the night (3-3 record, 4.20 ERA), gave Los Angeles. He ate up six innings, kept the Braves lineup off balance and exited the game after allowing just one run.
Gonzalez's pseudo-prophecy held true.
"(Correia) mixes pitches up," Upton said. "He didn't miss in the middle of the plate too much."
It appears not.
Corriea's final line in his Dodgers debut was one of his season's best: six innings, one earned run allowed on four hits and one walk, five strikeouts and a 1.97 FIP. Not bad for a guy whose ERA is still hovering around 5.00.
"That's the game right there," Gonzalez said, referencing Correia's line.
Correia's addition was likely meant to eat up some innings for the NL West-leading Dodgers down the stretch, not provide another shutdown arm. The Braves helped the Dodgers kill two birds with one stone in that regard.
Through the first three innings, the 33-year-old no-hit the Braves without letting the ball escape the infield. The only meaningful run the Braves scored came on two singles and a walk; Gonzalez could count on one hand the amount of times Atlanta made solid contact throughout the game. It wasn't Kershaw and Greinke, but it was plenty good enough.
Teheran sparked a conversation last season about just what constitutes a balk during a pitcher's pickoff attempt. It's rare for a right-hander to possess such a lethal move -- he pivots off the mound with such speed that it's be difficult for an umpire to make a definitive balk call -- and it's helped establish him as one of the best defensive pitchers in baseball. He owns nine defensive runs saved since the start of the 2013 season, tied for the fourth-best mark in baseball with Kershaw.
In 2013, Teheran's breakout campaign, he picked off an MLB-high eight baserunners.
The next-closest righty on the list? Atlanta's own Kris Medlen ... with three pickoffs.
It's been slower going this year when it comes to nabbing runners, perhaps because the word is out and teams are playing things a little more conservatively against Teheran. He entered Monday's game with two pickoffs on the year -- certainly not terrible (tied for 20th-most in baseball), but not terrifying. At least until Yasiel Puig & Co. arrived at Turner Field.
The Dodgers apparently did not get the memo on Teheran's pickoff move, as they were twice caught straying a little too far away from the bag, doubling Teheran's total for the season and again pushing him into the baseball's top-five leaders in that category. Outfielders Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig were caught leaning in the second and fourth innings, respectively, helping Teheran keep numbers off the scoreboard in the early going.
That's right about where the Braves' highlights ended.