The Atlanta Braves surprised me Monday night. Not by losing to nearly-as-bad Cincinnati; we all know they're capable of losing to anybody anywhere anytime. They surprised me by not demoting Aaron Blair after the game.
Blair entered the season as the Braves' No. 4 prospect, No. 2 (behind Sean Newcomb) among pitchers. Acquired in the Shelby Miller deal with Arizona, Blair was regarded among the many young arms collected in this rebuild as the closest to the majors. After nine big-league starts, he appears to be in over his head.
He entered Monday's game with a 7.13 ERA, having worked six innings in only one of his first eight starts. (The exception came against the Cubs on May 1. Go figure.) Against the Reds, Blair was matched against a pitcher even worse than he'd been -- Daniel Wright, carrier of a 7.20 ERA. When this s eason began, Wright was working as a reliever for Class AA Pensacola.
Blair opened the festivities Monday by throwing 10 consecutive fastballs -- some four-seamers, others two-seamers, none particularly fast. (The highest reading I saw was 92 mph.) He walked Zack Cozart to start the game, which isn't easy to do. In 218 previous plate appearances, he'd walked eight times. Blair's first non-fastball was on Pitch No. 11, and Joey Votto whiffed on the changeup. Then Blair had Jay Bruce 0-2 and yielded a triple in the gap on a fastball. Then Adam Duvall hit a home run off the left-field foul pole on the second of consecutive changeups.
The Braves trailed 3-0 before Wright threw a pitch. Because he was as bad as advertised, the game was tied after two innings. Blair opened the third inning by yielding a single to Cozart. Then he walked Votto, who to be fair walks a lot. Then he walked Brandon Phillips on four pitches, and Phillips is a hacker of long standing. (He walked 27 times in 623 PAs last season.) Then he walked Bruce to untie the game. Two sacrifice flies made it 6-3.
The next two innings were better for Blair -- they could scarcely have been worse -- and he departed after five, having needed 103 pitches to record 15 outs. He'd walked four, struck out three. In the majors, he has more walks (25) than strikeouts (23). He has yielded six-plus earned runs in three of his past five starts. His ERA is 7.59, which is the second-worst in baseball among pitchers who've worked 40 innings. His xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) is the worst .
When Mike Minor was struggling in the early part of 2012, he accused himself of making "non-competitive pitches." (Minor eventually figured things out that year and was very good in 2013.) That description came to mind watching Blair on Monday. He couldn't control his fastball, and the rest of his pitches were nothing special. Nothing stamped him as the No. 4 prospect in anybody's farm system, let alone the one newly christened by ESPN Insider's Keith Law as the best in baseball . Nobody is suggesting the Braves give up on a guy who just turned 24, but still: He has to be better than this.
I really thought Brian Snitker's postgame remarks would include the alert that the Braves were sending Blair to Gwinnett. That they didn't shouldn't be taken as an indication that the team's patience is limitless. If Blair doesn't show -- to invoke Vince Dooley's charge to Ray Goff -- significant improvement the next time out, look for him to make the commute to Lawrenceville. What's happening is doing nobody any good.
As for the rest of the game: It was awful. When you've lost 45 games by the Ides of June, you get inured to indignity. Still, this might have been the worst of the 45. The Reds, as noted, are lousy. They blew one three-run lead, then another. Then they blew a one-run lead. (Their bullpen is baseball's worst by roughly the same distance that the Braves have hit the fewest homers among MLB teams -- which is to say three miles.) The Reds won 9-8.
The winning run scored when Arodys Vizcaino, one of the few glimmers in this dank season, yielded a bloop double to Votto -- third baseman Adonis Garcia couldn't make an over-the-shoulder catch -- and then walked three Redlegs. The first was intentional. The second and third were not.
About the bloop: Chase d'Arnaud, who'd entered as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the eighth, had been deployed as shortstop to start the ninth, replacing Erick Aybar, who'd been hit this night by yet another pitch. Mallex Smith had moved from left field to center to accommodate a double switch. (Ender Inciarte, who'd made the last out in the eight, was lifted for the pitcher. That's standard procedure in double switches.) Jeff Francoeur, who'd pinch-hit, replaced Smith in left. Without the changes, does Aybar catch Votto's ball? Does Smith?
After further review: Just watched the replay. Maybe Ozzie Smith catches that ball, but I'm not sure any other shortstop -- maybe not Andrelton Simmons, certainly not Aybar -- does. It needed to be either the third baseman or the left fielder. Garcia got there and couldn't make the catch, which was a tough chance. Still wonder about Smith, though. (And this isn't a rip of Snitker's tactics. Just an observation that even the tiniest actions can have consequences.)
About the bottom of the eighth: In a tie game, the Braves left the bases loaded. Aybar botched a sacrifice. Smith lined out to second. Inciarte grounded out to second. With Wright pulled after three innings, the Braves mustered three runs -- on Freddie Freeman's two-run homer and Garcia's solo clout -- over six innings against baseball's worst relievers. To borrow a pregame line from the great C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer : Resistible force, meet movable object.
Yesterday, this correspondent wondered -- here and also here -- if the Braves, bad as they are, could hold off, as it were, the Reds and the Twins to finish with baseball's worst record and thereby secure the No. 1 pick in next year's draft. Having now seen the Reds up close, I can attest that they're terrible. They're also 1-0 against the Braves.
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