Three Cuts: Pitching falters again as Braves drop series to Mets

BY Zach Dillard • June 14, 2015

In a rubber match that turned into another nightmare for the Atlanta Braves' pitching staff, the New York Mets scored seven straight runs to take a 10-8 win and the three-game series on Sunday afternoon. Here are three observations from the game:

Same story, different game. The Braves pitching staff, particularly its MLB-worst bullpen that continues to cough up leads regardless of situation, continues to be lumped into all the wrong company after blowing yet another large lead. After leading 8-3 at one point, starter Mike Foltynewicz could not get out of the fifth inning and his relief corps could not stop the bleeding. The Mets solidified their first-place spot in the NL East with the 10-8 win, sending the Braves to 3 1/2 games back in the division.

The numbers are hard to ignore. The Braves lost for the fourth time this season after scoring eight or more runs -- and the third time in the past two weeks.

Here's some perspective on just how rare that is in this pitching-first franchise's recent history: From 2011 to 2014, the Braves were a perfect 76-0 when hitting or eclipsing the eight-run mark. They are 7-4 in such games in 2015. Looking for another way to look at it? Before the 2015 season, the Braves had gone more than 1,000 games since losing three games in which they scored eight or more runs. The 2015 squad just pulled off the feat in 11 games.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez simplified the problem: "We scored some runs early and just couldn't stop them from scoring." He repeated some form of that phrase on three separate occasions in his postgame news conference.

The last time the Braves lost four eight-plus-run games in a single season was 2008, a season that ended with a 72-90 record.

The issues are well-known at this point. Foltynewicz's inability to pitch deep into the game despite a substantial lead -- the rookie allowed five earned runs on nine hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings pitched -- forced Gonzalez to lean on his problematic bullpen for a heavy workload. (Though it could be argued that Foltynewicz, who logged just 75 pitches, should have been given a longer leash, regardless of his own struggles.) In turn, relievers Brandon Cunniff and Luis Avilan quickly relinquished the lead on two home-run balls in the fifth and sixth innings.

The Braves bullpen's collective ERA ballooned to 4.69, the second-worst mark in the majors.

Gonzalez chalked up his starter's Sunday troubles to a lack of experience, but when asked if he's running out of options on the back end the visibly disappointed manager

"There's still more things to try," Gonzalez said. "There's more combinations, more little stuff to try and we'll try to figure it out."

Before getting into the 23-year-old's fourth passed ball in the past five games, and his fifth of the campaign, one thing remains clear: Christian Bethancourt is the best defensive option the Braves have behind the plate. While his highly touted arm does not completely overshadow his all-too-frequent mental hiccups, veteran backup A.J. Pierzynski's inability to hold runners has not only plagued him this season, but his entire career. In terms of advanced metrics entering Sunday's finale, the Braves defense was far stingier with Bethancourt (5 defensive runs saved) behind the plate instead of Pierzysnki (minus-7 DRS).

Still, the passed balls are a concern.

The issue popped up throughout Bethancourt's minor-league career and even after his poor late-game performance against San Diego -- a passed ball and catcher interference effectively ended the game in the eighth inning -- the rookie cost the team again in New York. Bethancourt allowed a passed ball on a high fastball in the first inning, delivering the Mets' first run in what would turn into a barnburner.

One passed ball didn't doom Foltynewicz's start or the bullpen's perpetual failures, but it certainly didn't offer any positive foreshadowing.

With neither catcher hitting near league average of late, it's difficult to argue against starting Bethancourt, despite his shortcomings on sides of the ball. Pierzynski's fast offensive start aside, the rookie has been, at the very least, just as productive -- especially on the defensive end. Bethancourt will need to clean up these issues, though, because this pitching staff can ill-afford to provide free runs.

No team in the National League has scored more runs than the Braves this month. Gonzalez could not find a single negative thing to say after his offense jumped all over Mets starter Dillon Gee, scoring nearly five runs per game in June.

And yet the team has posted a 5-8 record this month and only fallen farther back in the division race.

All the same, it's difficult to envision a scenario where the Braves continue to produce runs at this rate and fail. The key for Atlanta will be to correct its pitching problems while remaining consistent at the plate -- something it was unable to do when the starting staff hit its stride earlier in the year.

Gonzalez looks to have found some answers, though, especially at the top of the lineup where Jace Peterson, Cameron Maybin, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have solidified the Nos. 1-4 holes lately. Peterson, the rookie second baseman acquired in the Justin Upton deal, posted a 3 for 5 day with a home run at leadoff, while the other three reached base six times. The recently acquired Juan Uribe and recently activated Kelly Johnson each posted three-hit games. The only starting position player to go without a hit was Andrelton Simmons.

This is the type of production the front office was desperate for last season. The question is whether this another brief offensive surge or something Gonzalez & Co. can lean on throughout the summer.

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