MIAMI – The Braves have lost eight of nine games and 15 of 19 since a 6-6 start. This is not what anyone in the organization hoped for, planned or expected in the first season with a new home ballpark.
Even though they knew their rebuilding project was far from over, Braves officials expected – and still expect – far better than what has transpired thus far.
So what has happened to the Braves? How did they go from that promising first couple of weeks to another stretch that feels so much like long stretches of the past two seasons of 93 losses (in 2016) and 95 losses (2015), the worst two-season stretch for the Braves in a quarter-century?
“We’re just not playing good right now,” veteran left fielder Matt Kemp said after Wednesday’s 4-2 loss at Houston, where Kemp struck out with bases loaded in the eighth inning after the Astros pitched around Freddie Freeman. “We’ve got to get better. Just got to get better, plain and simple.”
“When we pitch, we don’t hit,” said Freeman, who has been one of baseball’s best hitters, batting .336 with 12 homers and ranking second in the majors in both OBP (.457) and slugging percentage (.743). “And when we don’t pitch, we hit. It’s kind of just falling down a hill right now, snowball effect. We got our opportunities in the last couple of innings, we just didn’t get it done.”
When the Astros walked Freeman on five pitches – it would’ve been four if the ump didn’t call a pitch several inches out of the zone a strike – it was the eighth time he’d been walked in a meager 21 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Twenty-one! That’s a really low number of RISP opportunities for any hitter in a regular lineup, and almost impossibly low for a No. 3 hitter.
But when you’ve got the lowest OBP from the leadoff spot, as the Braves do, and one of the lowest OBPs from the No. 2 spot, which they also do, it happens.
Freeman has nine solo home runs in the first 31 games, which puts him on a record pace for solo homers. That’s a record he wants no part of – at least not when it means that three-fourths of his homer total comes with bases empty.
The Braves have hit 18 homers and scored 85 runs while going 5-14 in their past 19 games — a 4.47-run scoring average that, on the surface, isn’t bad. However, it should be noted that 38 of those runs came in four games including two against the beat-up Mets and 21 runs in back-to-back wins at hitter-friendly Miller Park in Milwaukee, where balls were carrying extremely well all weekend.
That means the Braves averaged 3.1 runs in the other 15 of those 19 games. They scored three or fewer runs in 10 of 19 games in that.
Still, the offense hasn’t been nearly as problematic to the Braves’ struggles as the pitching, specifically the starting pitching. The Braves have a woeful 5.77 ERA during the 5-14 slide, with opponents batting .278 and posting an .833 OPS while totaling a whopping 53 doubles and 28 homers in 171 2/3 innings. Atlanta pitchers have a bad strikeouts/walk ratio of 1.88 (130/69) in that stretch.
And it’s gotten a lot worse lately.
During the Braves’ current 1-8 stretch, their pitchers have posted a 6.51 ERA and .880 opponents’ OPS while allowing nearly two homers per game including multiple homers in seven of nine games. They’ve issued five or more walks in five of those nine games. These are unacceptable numbers, folks. And there’s this: Braves pitchers gave up at least one run in the first inning of seven consecutive games before Jaime Garcia snapped that streak Wednesday at Houston.
“We’ve seen what the pitching staff and the offense can do when we’re both on the same page,” said Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz, who’ll be on the mound for a series opener Friday night against the Marlins in Miami. “It’s kind of one of those things where us pitchers do well and we don’t hit, or when we hit we kind of give up (runs); it’s kind of in-between.”
Foltynewicz, who entered the season as the No. 5 starter, had ironically been the one Braves starter to avoid a bad outing until he got roughed up in his most recent start last Friday against the Cardinals, when he gave up seven runs in four innings to send his ERA soaring to 4.55. Before that he’d pitched quite well, though he’s still winless due to poor run support.
He remains optimistic, as do most Braves. The season is, after all, less than one-fifth completed, and surely the three veteran starters they signed this winter – Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Jaime Garcia – to help assure Year 1 at SunTrust Park could be a decent season or better, will eventually come around. Colon, in particular, can’t be as awful as he’s been so far, right? (Though with his 44th birthday later this month, it could be argued this shouldn’t be a total surprise.)
“I think when we all get on the same page — like you (reporters) saw, we can do it, we can have fun,” Foltynewicz said, referring perhaps to the Braves’ 20-10 finish in their final 30 games last season and a four-game sweep of the Padres in the first series at SunTrust. “We can do it, we can destroy teams – and at the same time, it’s baseball and it can happen to us, too.”
But lately, they’ve been the destroyed much more frequently than the destroyer.
“It’s just, we’re going to fine-tune some things,” Foltynewicz said, “and when we find the right spot it’s going to be fun. It’s early. We’ve been facing some good arms, some good teams. So we’ll be all right.”
• The Rolling Stones‘ epic Exile on Main Street album came out 45 years ago today. I’d say it’s aged quite well. Damn if this doesn’t sound as good as it ever did.
“TUMBLING DICE” by The Rolling Stones
Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me
And make me burn the candle right down,
But baby, baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown.
‘Cause all you women is low down gamblers,
Cheatin’ like I don’t know how,
But baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now.
This low down bitchin’ got my poor feet a itchin’,
You know you know the duece is still wild.
Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me
And call me the tumblin’ dice.
Always in a hurry, I never stop to worry,
Don’t you see the time flashin’ by.
Honey, got no money,
I’m all sixes and sevens and nines.
Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider,
You can be my partner in crime.
But baby, I can’t stay,
You got to roll me and call me the tumblin’,
Roll me and call me the tumblin’ dice.
Oh, my, my, my, I’m the lone crap shooter,
Playin’ the field ev’ry night.
Baby, can’t stay,
You got to roll me and call me the tumblin’ (dice),
Roll me and call me the tumblin’ (Got to roll me.) dice.
Got to roll me. Got to roll me.