NEW YORK – By now you are fully aware of the degree to which Braves relievers have struggled in recent weeks, so we’ll not belabor that point. But allow me to present to you a stat o two that brings home just how costly those late-innings meltdowns have been:
The Braves have already lost more games in which they led after six innings (eight) than they lost in all of the 2014 season, when they went 62-7 in such games. Think about that. Eight losses. Just cut that in half and the Braves are in first place today, 1 ½ games ahead of the Mets.
Instead, Atlanta is 2 ½ games behind the NL East-leading Mets entering tonight’s opener of a three-game series between the teams at Citi Field.
The Braves have a majors-worst 4.75 bullpen ERA, and their staff as a whole has a majors-worst .278 opponents’ average allowed in close-and-late situations, along with a majors-worst 14 homers allowed in those situations.
The Braves are two games under .500 after 60 games, which is better than most people predicted they’d be after trading Craig Kimbrel on the eve of opening day, following the offseason trades of Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Jason Heyward. But the trade of Kimbrel, coupled with the 80-game PED suspensions for hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino and lefty Andrew McKirahan, plus the spring-training shoulder injury to lefty Josh Outman, a free-agent signee, have left the Braves bullpen in even worse shape than any of us could’ve imagined entering the season.
We were lulled into a false sense of security when the ‘pen started out so strong, with rookies Cody Martin and Brandon Cunniff making it looking way easier than it’s supposed to be in their first stints in the big leagues, and setup man Jim Johnson appearing to have regained his pre-2014 form, and Jason Grilli converted every save opportunity while barely allowing a run in the first part of the season.
Bur reality has hit this team like a ton of bricks. Opposing teams developed a book on Martin’s tendencies. Cunniff has continued to pitch well for the most part, but has given up some critical walks and hits. Johnson has become erratic and at times looks like the guy who struggled so mightily with two teams in 2014. And Grilli has become a walk-a-tightrope closer more often than not for the past month.
Luis Avilan has been solid for the most part, way better than many of his critics seem to believe judged on comments. But the rest of the Braves’ relievers? Whew. It’s been brutal.
They hope this weeks’s additions of free agents David Aardsma and lefty Dana Eveland can help stem the tide, and the Braves believe that Vizcaino and McKirahan will be nice additions in July when their drug suspensions end. So might sidearmer Peter Moylan, who is at Triple-A trying to regain his form 14 months after a second Tommy John surgery.
Will it be enough? Probalby not. The Braves are going to probably have to decide if they make a serious move at an accomplished reliever or two before the July 31 trade deadline, if they hope to turn a beleaguered bullpen into a competitive one. Whether they will or not probably depends how they do in the next few weeks, since there aren’t many relievers available right now.
That’s a Catch-22 of sorts, of course – wait a few weeks, by which point the Braves could be 7-8 games back instead of a 2-3, if the ‘pen keeps blowing up the good work of the offense and starting pitchers. And if they do fall that many games back, I wouldn’t expect them to be buyers at the deadline.
Hang on. It’s going to get interesting, one way or another, in the coming weeks.
Just realized, I guess I did belabor the point about the ‘pen, huh?
• Important series: The Braves need to win a couple of games in this series to avoid losing ground, obviously. And to do so, they need to reverse a couple of recent trends.
They are 3-6 despite a .296 batting average and 44 runs in their past nine games, mainly because they have a 4.88 ERA in that span, with a disproportionate amount of the runs charged to the bullpen along with multiple blown leads.
The good news for ATL: The Mets are 5-8 with a 4.30 ERA in their past 13 games, having batted .253 and averaged fewer than four runs per game in that span. They’ve given up seven or more runs in five of their past 12 games.
But here’s the other trend that needs to be turned around: The Braves were swept in an April 21-23 series at Citi Field, and they’re just 5-11 in their past 16 games against the Mets. Atlanta scored three or fewer runs in 13 of those 16 games.
• Tonight’s matchup: It’s young Alex Wood against ancient Bartolo Colon, a rematch of their April 12 game when Colon got the win.
Wood is 4-0 with a 2.15 ERA in seven road starts, but 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA (and .333 opponents’ average) in home road starts. He’s lasted five or fewer innings in each of his past three home starts, and the Braves scored a total of two runs while he was in those games, including none while he was in the past two. On the road, Wood has lasted 6 2/3 or more innings in five of his past six starts, including seven, seven and eight innings in his past three.
The Braves have scored four or more runs while he was in five of his seven road starts, and he’s averaged just over six runs per nine innings pitched on the road compared to 2 ½ runs per nine at home.
Wood has a solid 3.51 ERA and .255 opponents’ average in his past four starts against the Mets, with 24 strikeouts and seven walks in 25 2/3 innings. But he’s 0-1 in those games, and the Braves scored two or fewer runs while he was in each of them. That includes the 4-3 loss April 12 against Colon in Atlanta, when Wood allowed three runs in 6 2/3 innings and Colon allowed three runs in seven innings and got the win.
Wood is 3-1 with a 2.41 ERA and .281 opponents’ average 33 2/3 innings over his past five starts, after going 1-2 with a 4. 32 ERA and a .313 opponents’ average in 33 1/3 innings over his first six starts. He’s allowed only two homers all season.
Against Wood, Michael Cuddyer is 3-for-5 with a homer, John Mayberry Jr. is 4-for-13 with a homer, Juan Lagares is 3-for-15 with a homer, and Lucas Duda is 2-for-10.
Meanwhile, Colon’s fortunes have turned in the other direction. The 40-something righty is 2-3 with a 6.44 ERA, .289 opponents’ average in his past five starts, after going 6-1 with a 3.30 ERA and .251 opponents’ average in his first seven starts including two April wins against the Braves.
Colon is 6-2 with a 2.48 ERA in eight career starts against the Braves, including 3-2 with a 3.09 ERA in five since the beginning of the 2014 season. Colon had 28 strikeouts and just one walk and one homer allowed in 35 innings over those past five starts against the Braves, all of them quality starts, though he did allowed three earned runs in each of the past four.
His other three starts against the Braves came in 2002, when Alex Wood was 11 years old.
Against Colon, Jonny Gomes is 8-for-24 with three homers, Andrelton Simmons is 8-for-15, A.J. Pierzynski is 14-for-53 (.264) with two homers, Freddie Freeman is 7-for-16, Nick Markakis is 9-for-35, and Kelly Johnson is 2-for-13 with five strikeouts.
• Here’s one from the mighty, and spectacularly unique, Tom Waits. He’s traveled around a bit.
“I’LL TAKE NEW YORK” by Tom Waits
I’ll get a shine
I’ll ride this dream
to the end of the line
I’m goin places
I’ll take a ride
Up to the Riverside
I’ll take NY
I’ll let it happen
I’ll pop the cork
tear off the wrappin’
I’ll make a splash on the Hudson
that’s how I will arrive
Hey, do you have two tens for a five?
Roll out the carpet
Strike up the band
break into the best
champagne when I land
Beat the parade drum
hit all the bars
I want the moon and stars
But I’ll take NY
I’ll make it happen
Blow out the candlels
tear off the wrappin’
And I know someday
they’ll have to name a street after me
right next door to old Franklin D