WASHINGTON – When Mike Minor gave up three runs in the first inning of Tuesday’s doubleheader opener, a Braves fan couldn’t be blamed if he or she felt like the game was lost.
Because while overcoming an early three-run deficit isn’t a tall order for these Braves when their lineup is clicking, it’s a daunting task when the offense is sputtering. And for a while now, it’s sputtered on a regular basis.
The Braves had a still-solid 3.30 ERA over their past 11 games before Tuesday, but mustered a puny .197 batting average and 32 runs in that period, including two or fewer runs scored in six games. Hence the 4-7 record in that stretch.
“We definitely have to get better,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. “We’re going through one of those stretches where we’re scuffling right now. And every time we’ve scuffled we’ve just looked and said, we’ve got to get more guys that are good hitters and not just sluggers. And every time, they’ve responded. Someone has stepped up and gotten hot.”
Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson have stayed hot for most of the season, including the team’s recent dismal stretch of hitting. But when the Braves have had their offense humming at or near peak capacity, they’ve had at least five or six hitters producing at a high level.
But since then-surging leadoff hitter Jason Heyward went on the DL with a broken jaw four weeks ago, it’s been only Freeman and Johnson, with another batter or two throwing in a hot stretch of a few games or a week here and there.
Multiple hitters struggling at once has led to this: .230 batting average and 3.7 runs per game over a 33-game stretch. That’s what the Braves offense had produced since the team’s 14-game winning streak ended with a 1-0 loss to the Marlins on Aug. 10.
That they managed a winning record (18-15) in those 33 games was due mainly to the Braves’ 3.07 ERA in that period – an ERA even better than their majors-leading 3.19 ERA for the season before Tuesday.
After leading the National League in home runs (114) and ranking third in the league in slugging percentage (.412) before the All-Star break, the Braves were fourth in homers and eighth in slugging (.388) since the break before Tuesday. Their 55 homers since the break were 13 fewer than NL leader Washington, which also led in slugging (.438) since the break.
The Braves’ .317 on-base percentage since the break was seventh in the NL before Tuesday; they were third with a .324 OBP before the break.
With the postseason only a couple of weeks away, the question is whether the Braves, who hope to get Heyward back by the last week of September, can get their offense turned around in time.
If not firing on all cylinders like it did during one of its undeniably impressive stretches earlier in the season, can then at least get it somewhere between that and the sub-.200 hitting unit it’s been lately?
“When we’re a good team – and we’ve been a good offensive team for long stretches – everybody falls in love with us and says, ‘Man, they’re really good,’” Walker said. “ And when we go bad everybody says, ‘Oh, they stink.’ Well, if I told you I know which team is going to show up in October — I have no idea. But I know they’ll continue to work to get there.
“And that’s how we’ve got out of those slumps in the past. So we’ll see. I don’t know. But I know this team, when everybody in the past has said, ‘They’ll never get there because they strike out too much.’ Now all of a sudden we’re going through another stretch and I’m sure people are down on us. But that’s all right. Time will tell.”
Manager Fredi Gonzalez was asked by a Washington writer Tuesday whether Gonzalez thought the Braves were built for the postseason.
“Yeah,” he said.
Because? “We’re good. We’ve got a good club,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve got good pitching. You look at our rotation, you can arguably say we don’t have a No. 1, but we’ve got four No. 2’s. Or four No. 3’s. And they compete their butts off. And the postseason, for me, the offensive stuff? You don’t know. The teams that do stuff during the 162 may not do it during the postseason. It’s just getting in (and then seeing what happens).
“There’s been many documented cases of guys who hit .300 during the season and hit .089 during the postseason. And other guys who hit .089 are monsters during the postseason. As soon as that 162 (game schedule) ends, it’s a brand new season.”