Braves starters surrendered 12 earned runs over 11-1/3 innings against the Dodgers in a series that ended early Thursday morning. A Braves offense that had been humming managed just seven runs over three games. The Dodgers completed their sweep of the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7.
That’s pretty much how it went for the Braves last time they were at Dodger Stadium, for the 2018 NLDS. The Braves won the National League East with competitive starting pitching and a lineup as good as any in the league. In two games in Los Angeles neither starter lasted five innings, the Braves scored zero runs and soon they would succumb to the Dodgers in four games by an aggregate score of 20-8.
It was an anti-climactic finish to a fun season for the Braves. This latest Los Angeles letdown suggests that not much has changed. The closer it gets to the end of May, the more we can believe the Braves are the team we see: a mediocre ballclub that can’t keep up with true contenders such as the Dodgers.
And, this time, the Braves won’t be able to rely on the Phillies to fade in the East. Philadelphia (21-15 entering Thursday) won eight of its past 12 games to lead the Braves (18-19) by 3-1/2 games. The Phillies had a plus-31 run differential, and the Braves were at minus-3. You may recall that the Phillies clobbered the Braves to begin the season.
The Phillies lead the division despite Bryce Harper’s usual streaky hitting. As noted when Harper signed, he’s just one of many new pieces that make the Phillies formidable. Harper is hitting the ball hard, so once he walks more and strikes out less, Philadelphia’s lineup will reach its full potential.
The Braves have a good lineup. They still couldn’t solve the multiple live arms the Dodgers threw at them. The same thing happened when the Braves faced two other top-tier staffs this season, the Reds (11 runs in three games) and the Padres (13 in four).
The Braves need to pound out a lot of runs against good pitching because their pitching staff is a mess. Walks remain a staff-wide weakness. Home runs are becoming a big problem, too.
When the Braves struggled earlier in the season, manager Brian Snitker said he usually knows what kind of team he has by the end of May. This month will provide the verdict.
After four games at Arizona (21-16 entering Thursday) the Braves return home to face the Cardinals (21-16) and Brewers (23-16). Then they head back out to San Francisco and St. Louis before coming home to face Washington. The Giants and Nationals are the only scuffling opponents the Braves will see the rest of the month.
The Braves have shown few signs that they can play at a high level for more than a few games at a time. They won seven of eight games to begin April. That included a sweep of the Cubs, who lead the NL Central, but entering Thursday Chicago was 19-8 since that series and the Braves were 15-15.
After sweeping the Cubs the Braves split four games with the Mets, then got swept by Arizona. The Braves won two of three at Cleveland, then lost two of three against both the Reds and Rockies.
The top-line results scream out average-at-best for the Braves. The details signal the same. The pitching is bad and the hitting hasn’t been timely. Their defense, a major asset in 2018, now is just so-so.
If the Braves go on a run, it will be because their offense surges. After the Dodgers series they ranked third in on-base percentage, first in batting average and seventh in isolated power. Keep generating base runners and, theoretically, the hits eventually will time up better with the scoring opportunities.
But the question is whether the Braves can hit and pitch well enough at the same time for an extended period. We’ve seen this pattern play out already.
Against the Phillies, the Braves hit OK but couldn’t pitch. Against the Diamondbacks in April, the Braves pitched well but didn’t hit much. The Braves had a chance to top the Dodgers in the series finale, but each time their hitters made it close their pitchers spit the bit.
When a team shows such patterns and keeps saying it just needs to put it all together, it almost always means it’s just not good enough. We’ll know for sure about the Braves by the end of this month. But, after another downer at the Dodgers, it looks like the Braves are a middling team that will finish as also-rans to the Phillies.
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