MIAMI – So there’s panic on the streets of Buckhead and Bankhead. Of Midtown and Marietta. In Vinings, Smyrna, Lilburn and Decatur (well, at least the parts of Decatur where folks have sworn off the Braves since the move north.)
There’s panic in the ‘burbs and also all the far-flung burgs of Braves Country outside metro Atlanta.
The Braves have lost five straight and six of their first seven on a road trip that mercifully ends tonight in Miami, hardly the type of warm-up they had hoped for before their home opener at gleaming new SunTrust Park.
Well, come in off the ledge, for now. Consider a few things.
The Braves have been outscored 31-19 in their five-game losing skid. Modest, compared to the deep troubles during their nine-game skid to start the 2016 season. They’ve left 39 runners on base in those five games, while opponents have stranded 32 runners.
Considering two of those losses were by one run and a third loss was by two runs, it’s not hard to see where just one or two more timely hits could’ve changed the outcome of several games. (Or one less error, or one or two fewer walks issued or poorly located pitches thrown, particularly by relievers….)
They have scored at least four runs in each of the past four losses during the five-game skid, but the Braves have also allowed at least five runs in five consecutive defeats and given up six or more runs in five of six losses this season, including exactly six runs allowed in four of those games.
They won the only game in which they allowed fewer than five runs, by a 3-1 margin over the Mets in Game 2, oddly enough their longest game (12 innings) this season.
Now, contrast the numbers above with the 2016 Braves during their 0-9 start. Those Braves totaled 24 runs in nine games. They scored more than three just three times in that 0-9 start and managed more than four runs once in that dreadful stretch while being outscored 55-24 in nine games.
During that season-opening skid the Braves lost by scores of 7-4, 12-2, 12-7 and 6-2. They were getting hammered often.
This year’s Braves have gotten better starting pitching most nights so far, but the bullpen has woefully underperformed in multiple games.
The glaring similarity between last year’s early struggles and this season’s has been the near-complete lack of timely or “clutch” hitting. Call it what you want, but the Braves have not gotten those crucial hits, wasting numerous scoring opportunities by batting just .183 (11-for-60) with runners in scoring position, 24th in the majors. Another damning stat within that stat: The Braves have struck out 21 times in those 60 at-bats with RISP. No team has struck out more in those spots.
Veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips, in his first season with the Braves, said after Tuesday’s loss that he senses guys are tense and putting pressure on themselves.
“That’s human nature,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Everybody wants to be the guy, they want to pick their teammates up, they want to be the guy to get us off the mat. And our time will come. You’ve just got to stay after it.”
Snitker thinks the Braves’ troubles are magnified both by the fact it’s the first seven games of the season and it’s leading up to the highly anticipated and well-chronicled home opener Friday at SunTrust Park. There were high hopes from Braves Country.
“Absolutely,” the approaching home opener has magnified the early struggles, Snitker said. “I mean, just everything. You’ve got to handle it. We’ve just got to keep grinding and fighting and eventually the thing will turn in our direction.”
Among Braves with the most opportunities with runners in scoring position, struggling leadoff man Ender Inciarte is 2-for-10 with no walks and three strikeouts, Nick Markakis is 2-for-9 with one walk (intentional) and five strikeouts, Phillips is 1-for-8 with one walk and two strikeouts and Dansby Swanson is 0-for-5 with two walks and one strikeout.
No. 3 hitter Freddie Freeman has just four plate appearances with runners in scoring position and is 0-for-2 with two walks and two strikeouts. Injured cleanup hitter Matt Kemp is 1-for-3 with two strikeouts with RISP. Besides Markakis, the only Braves with more than one hit with RISP are Jace Peterson and Adonis Garcia, each 2-for-5.
A year ago, the Braves’ early RISP woes started to vanish once Freeman began to heat up in May.
“As long as you keep giving yourself the opportunity to score runs, ultimately we’re going to start scoring runs,” Freeman said. “If we were going out there getting two or three hits and that was it, I’d be probably telling you a different story right now. But we’ve been getting nine, 10, 11 hits and getting (only) two or three runs. I think the last game we left, like, 10 guys on base. So I think that’s the name of the game right now, we’re giving too many outs away right now and we’re not getting them in. But at least we’re giving ourselves opportunities.”
There is reason to believe the bullpen will stabilize and improve significantly with the return of Mauricio Cabrera, who missed the last 10 days of spring training and opened the season on the DL with elbow soreness but has progressed well in his recovery and could begin a rehab assignment by next week, and the eventual arrival of A.J. Minter, the top lefty prospect, though he missed most of camp and can’t be expected to arrive and make a big impact before perhaps mid-summer if I had to guess.
And who knows, maybe recently pickup Jason Motte still has enough left in the tank to help out from the right side. We’ll see after he pitches a little at Triple-A Gwinnett. More importantly, the Braves can and should expect more effectiveness and consistency from key relievers Jim Johnson, Jose Ramirez and lefty Eric O’Flaherty, who’ve each had at least one costly outing so far.
As for Chaz Roe, the righty struggled much of spring training and has carried that into the season. Braves can’t wait around much longer for him to improve.
The Braves’ nine-game opening skid last season came entirely against two teams including six against the Nationals (four at D.C., where the Braves rarely win anymore) and three against the Cardinals, who turned out to be not nearly as good as recent-vintage Cardinals teams.
This year’s 1-6 start has come against the Mets and their top three starters, who might be the best 1-2-3 combo in the league as long as they stay healthy; at Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have enjoyed a surprisingly strong home-field advantage over most teams in recent years, and against the Marlins (now 4-3) in Miami, where the Braves came in with a majors-best 31-14 record at Marlins Park since it opened in 2012.
And it must be noted, three of the Braves’ first seven games were home openers for three different teams, and the visiting Bravos lost all three of those before large crowds (though the Pirates crowd was a bit smaller than it would’ve been if not for cold and sometimes-snowy conditions).
Most of those six games at New York and Pitttsburgh were played in cold and/or damp conditions. Hey, that obviously effects both teams, but the Mets and Pirates seemed a lot more comfortable playing in the cold than these Braves did, or at least mentioned it less.
The Braves scored more than enough runs to get an expected series win in Pittsburgh, but their defense and bullpen were awful in that series (and Mike Foltynewicz was bad in his start).
Last night’s game at Miami was played in controlled conditions with the roof closed. There was a large crowd – especially by Miami standards – and once again it was an emotional scene as the Marlins paid tribute to Jose Fernandez, who died in a September boat crash less than 12 hours before a would-be series finale against the Braves that was cancelled and not made up.
Bartolo Colon, who got lit up pitching for the Mets when he faced the Marlins in their first game after Fernandez’s death, got lit up again Tuesday night when he faced the Marlins on another Fernandez tribute night. How much can be attributed to the Marlins being fired up? I would not pretend to know the answer to that, I just know that those emotion-filled games can go either way for the team directly involved. Sometimes they play worse for it. The Marlins certainly did not.
So, one game left on the road. First they take Miami, then Berlin…er, SunTrust Park. Or, at least that’s what the Braves are hoping for as they try to shake out of beginning-of-the-season doldrums that are all too familiar.
So, here ya go, G ‘n’ R on needing a little more patience. Oh, and once I run out of patience-themed songs, then it will truly be time to panic.
“PATIENCE” by Guns ‘n’ Roses
One, two, one, two, three, four
Shed a tear ’cause I’m missin’ you
I’m still alright to smile
Girl, I think about you every day now
Was a time when I wasn’t sure
But you set my mind at ease
There is no doubt you’re in my heart now
Said woman take it slow, and it’ll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience
Said sugar make it slow and we’ll come together fine
All we need is just a little patience (Patience)
I sit here on the stairs
‘Cause I’d rather be alone
If I can’t have you right now, I’ll wait dear
Sometimes I get so tense but I can’t speed up the time
But you know love there’s one more thing to consider
Said woman take it slow and things will be just fine
You and I’ll just use a little patience
Said sugar take the time ’cause the lights are shining bright
You and I’ve got what it takes to make it
We won’t fake it, I’ll never break it
‘Cause I can’t take it
Little patience, mm yeah, mm yeah
Need a little patience, yeah
Just a little patience, yeah
Some more patience, yeah (I’ve been walking the streets at night, just trying to get it right)
A little patience, yeah (Its hard to see with so many around
You know I don’t like being stuck in the crowd)
Could use some patience, yeah (And the streets don’t change but maybe the names)
(I ain’t got time for the game ’cause I need you)
Gotta have more patience, yeah (Yeah, yeah but I need you)
All need some patience (Ooh I need you, whoa I need you)
Just a little patience is all you need (Ooh, this time, ah)