Every baseball story written before Memorial Day should probably begin with the words, “It’s early” – because it is. The Braves have played 31 games, or 19 percent of their season. They’re 15-16, 2-1/2 games out of first place in the National League East. With a week’s good work, they could be looking down at the rest of this division.
That said …
There’s something missing, and it’s more than Arodys Vizcaino. (Or Craig Kimbrel.) Everything is at least a hair off, and on Thursday things were a Jon-Bon-Jovi-head-of-hair-off. The Braves entered the afternoon game with a chance to win their second series since April 10. They lost 11-2.
The Braves sent Mike Foltynewicz, a 2018 All-Star, against Matt Strahm, a 27-year-old lefty with a career record of 7-13. The Padres started nobody with a batting average above .253; the Braves’ starting eight included only one position player hitting below .263. After 4-1/2 innings, Foltynewicz was gone and Matt Strahm was making like Warren Spahn and the visitors led 6-0, soon to be become 11-nil.
The Padres’ first run came on a homer by Ian Kinsler, who was hitting .149. He lofted a Foltynewicz slider over the wall in left-center with one out in the third. It stayed 1-0 until the fifth, which began with a bunt single by Austin Hedges, the San Diego catcher. Strahm bunted him over. Kinsler doubled him home, again on a slider. Then things got weird.
Franmil Reyes lifted a drive to short center. When it left the bat, you thought, “Can ’o corn.” Then you realized that Ronald Acuna, manning center field this day, hadn’t gotten the world’s greatest jump. “The ball’s got to be caught,” manager Brian Snitker said afterward. This wasn’t.
Next up was Manny Machado, the $300-million-man batting a lusty .232. He bounced a grounder off Foltynewicz. The carom didn’t carry far, leaving an out still to be made. But whenever a pitcher hastens a throw to second base, it’s apt to wind up in center field. This did.
Now the score was 3-0. Eric Hosmer’s sac fly made it 4-0. Wil Myers’ single to left made it 5-0. A frazzled Foltynewicz was relieved of further duty. Grant Dayton was greeted by a Manuel Margot liner to third that a lunging Camargo could have caught but did not. That made it 6-0. In this one inning, the light-hitting Padres scored five runs on six hits, two of which didn’t leave the infield and a third that should have been caught, plus an error. Ergo, horror show.
A Braves game wouldn’t be a Braves game without featuring some form of bullpen follies. Shane Carle obliged. He retired two of the first three hitters he faced in the sixth, the born-again Kinsler being the exception. The next four Padres mustered a communal cycle – Machado double, Hosmer single, Ty France triple off Acuna’s glove, Myers opposite-field homer. Were this Little League – and in some ways it was – the slaughter rule would have been invoked.
Over a six-month season, every team will have a game like this. (FYI, it was the first time since 2000 that San Diego mustered five runs in consecutive innings.) What’s troubling is that the Braves have gotten their starting pitchers back – granted, Thursday was Foltynewicz’s second big-league start of 2019 – and they’ve hit rather well, and still they’ve lost 12 of 20 games. And before you can say, “It’s the bullpen’s fault,” the bullpen only made Thursday’s loss worse. This game was gone when Foltynewicz sailed the ball into center field.
Asked if it was fair to say his team hasn’t yet played to capacity, Snitker offered this: “I think it’s more than fair. We haven’t been clicking on all cylinders. We’re starting to work through the bullpen thing – guys are starting to identify themselves. Offensively, the average is good, but we’re not hitting with guys on like we’re capable. And the defensive lapses: That’s not who we are.”
Then: “That one inning was an aberration, but we’re not a team than can afford (to do such things). We have to play sound baseball to be competitive, and 95-98 percent of the time we do. It was an ugly inning, and things we usually do, we didn’t.”
Still, losing by nine runs to the Padres, who’d scored only six in the first three games of the series, might hold a hidden benefit. Charlie Culberson, who started in left field, was summoned to pitch the ninth. By the standards of this bullpen, he wasn’t half-bad. (Hey, he retired Kinsler.) Mixing an 88-mph fastball with a 77-mph slider, he made it through the inning without a run scoring. His ERA for the season is 0.00, which beats the heck out of Carle’s 9.64. Forget Kimbrel! Culberson for closer!
We pause to note that, as wretched as this game was, it’s one of 162. This was, to use Snitker’s word, an aberration. Somehow, though, this one game felt symptomatic of the season to date. This time last season, we could tell the Braves were on to something. But now it’s a different year, and we’re starting to wonder if this is indeed a different team.
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