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After near-brawl in first, Braves bats silent in loss

There were shoves and ejections after a highly charged benches-clearing fracas in the first inning Wednesday, when Braves catcher Brian McCann blocked the basepath as Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez neared home plate on a preening, trash-talking home-run trot that will live in infamy.

But after that extraordinary confrontation, which resulted in three ejections including Gomez and Freddie Freeman, things reverted to what has been the Braves’ too-frequent norm lately, and their norm against the Brewers all season: offensive ineptitude.

The Braves mustered two hits against Kyle Lohse in a 4-0 loss at Turner Field that dropped the Braves to a half-game behind St. Louis for best record in the National League, with four games left in the season. They’ve been shut out four times in their past 10 home games.

“Yeah, we’ve struggled,” third baseman Chris Johnson said. “We’ve got to step it up and start having some better at-bats, start doing the little things. We’ve got to try to focus on getting some guys on base, and when we do, move them around a little bit. Good offense, instead of just going up there and hacking. I’m guilty of it a little bit too, lately.”

Lohse (11-10) threw a complete game in only 89 pitches, with no walks and five strikeouts. He needed only 41 pitches in the first five innings against the Braves, who’ve been shut out a startling four times in six games against the Brewers this season, including twice in the series that ended Wednesday.

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“We didn’t get good swings,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We didn’t make (Lohse) work.”

The Braves have hit .204 while going 9-12 in their past 21 games and scoring two runs or fewer 10 times. They’ve totaled just 10 runs in six games against the Brewers this season, and seven runs came in one game. The Braves got a combined five hits while being shut out Monday and Wednesday.

After Andrelton Simmons hit a slow-rolling single just inside the third-base line to start the first inning, Lohse retired the next 20 batters before Evan Gattis’ two-out single in the seventh.

Braves starter Paul Maholm (10-11) gave up three runs on eight hits in seven innings, including Gomez’s one-out homer in the first inning on an 0-1 hanging change-up

Gomez walked seven steps before beginning his trot, staring all the while and then shouting at Maholm, whom he believed hit him intentionally with a pitch on June 23 in Milwaukee.

“I’ve been seven years in the league and I know when I get hit on purpose and when not,” Gomez said. “And I get hit many times and I put my head down.”

This time, Gomez did anything but put his head down. He didn’t stop yapping at Maholm and other Braves as he circled the bases. He said he heard McCann shouting at him after Gomez began to make his up the first-base line.

“(McCann) was screaming at me but you expect that because I hit a home run and pimp it up,” said Gomez, who has 23 home runs. “If I’m from the other side I’d be doing that too. But I’m not afraid to do this.”

When Gomez rounded third base and headed toward home plate, he found McCann standing in the middle of the basepath, about 20 feet up the line, where the catcher began shouting as Gomez approached. He stopped Gomez and they yelled at each other, inches apart.

“If I’m the catcher, I do the same thing,” Gomez said. “His (job) is to protect his pitchers, protect your teammates and it is what it is. I respect McCann. All his players, I’m apologizing to his manager, the organization. I know can be like that far, but always again the adrenaline, the emotion take it a little bit more (than) like you expect. I don’t expect to hit a home run and (be) talking all around the bases. The reason that I was talking is because they talked to me back and I responded.”

McCann wasn’t available for comment immediately after the game.

Gonzalez said Gomez’s actions were unlike anything he’d seen in his baseball career, from Little League to the major leagues.

“If there is some history there, I think by you hitting a home run, you made a statement,” Gonzalez said of Gomez. “But the way (he) behaved around the bases, I think it was embarrassing for a professional baseball player to handle himself that way.”

Both benches cleared and players converged around McCann and Gomez as they shouted at each before being separated by home-plate umpire Paul Nauert. There was shoving between players and appeared to be a few errant punches thrown before order was restored.

Umpiring crew chief Dana DeMuth said Freeman was ejected for being “overaggressive” and hitting third baseman Aramis Ramirez with an elbow when players were shoving each other. Ramirez exited in the third inning with a sore left knee that he said resulted from the scrum.

“(Gomez) started getting on the pitcher as soon as he left the batter’s box,” DeMuth said. “When he went around first, Freeman had a little reaction with stuff. No other infielder did and then we had what happened at home plate…. When the group (players) got together, you can see on the video very well, Freeman was overaggressive. Right when he came in, he went boom with an elbow which we saw and it caught the third baseman Ramirez. That right there is just like throwing a punch. That is overaggressive. That number one calls for an ejection.

“What we saw out there was the same as we saw (later on video). There was nobody else that was overly aggressive, other than Gomez of course.”

Freeman strongly denied throwing any punches, which is what Gonzalez said DeMuth gave him as the reason for the first baseman’s ejection.

“I just told him to act like he’d done it before on the bases and start running,” Freeman said. “Then the altercation at home plate, and I just came in and kind of moved the pile a little bit…. I don’t know if they just picked the biggest guy in the pile and kicked them out. I don’t know what was going on.

“It’s a tough game, and unfortunately I got kicked out in the first inning. For doing nothing. It’s a little frustrating.”

Gonzalez said if there is any suspension handed down for Freeman, the Braves would appeal.

Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird also was ejected, for continuing to shout from the dugout after the incident.

It was the second time in two weeks that McCann confronted an opposing hitter for showing up his pitcher after a homer. On Sept. 11 at Miami, Marlins rookie pitching sensation Jose Fernandez, after his first career homer, took a slow trip around the bases and spit at third base, after exchanging words earlier with Johnson.

After Fernandez crossed the plate, McCann stopped him and got in his face, telling him exactly what he thought of the situation. Fernandez and Marlins manager Mike Redmond apologized after that game for the rookie’s actions.

Fernandez said McCann had addressed him not as if to start a fight, but to let him know his behavior was unacceptable.

“We’ve got a group of guys that play the game the right way, and Mac’s a huge part of that,” Maholm said. “Mac, same thing in Miami, took exception and is going to stand up for anybody in this clubhouse. And it showed. Unfortunately, I think Freddie got thrown out for no reason. You go watch the video, he didn’t do anything.”

Despite blocking Gomez’s path to the plate, McCann wasn’t ejected, perhaps an indication of how over-the-top the umpires viewed Gomez’s antics after the homer.

Maholm faced Gomez plenty of times during 2010-12 when Maholm pitched for the Pirates and Cubs. Gomez is 9-for-20 with two homers in his career against the left-hander, and Maholm hit him with a pitch in the leg June 23 at Milwaukee.

“(He) hit me twice, but the last one is the one I remember,” Gomez said. “The last one is the (one) that made me limp for two weeks because that hit me right in the bone in my knee, and I was limping for two weeks. That’s not fun.”

Freeman said: “If you have a beef with the pitcher, have a beef with the pitcher. Don’t make us get involved. We’re going to back up our pitcher. I’m fine with how everything was handled” by McCann and others.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he discussed the situation with Gomez afterward.

“He hits a home run off him but you know, get around the line,” he said. “But I don’t want to … It’s not all Gomey’s fault. Somebody starts yelling at you and he’s hot-tempered and then you get everybody yelling at him the whole way. And a guy’s standing in front of home plate. So he’s not the only one that’s out of line there.”

Four games left: The Braves have bigger concerns than the first inning Wednesday. Unlike the Brewers, they won’t be done playing for the year after Sunday, and the Braves are running out of time to get their offense going before the playoffs.

The team with the league’s best record gets the top seed for the NL, which means home-field advantage through the league championship series and a matchup with the winner of the Wild Card game in the division series. That’s important for the Braves, who have baseball’s best home record (53-24) and the only losing road record (40-41) among playoff contenders.

The second seed plays a division champion in the first round. If the Braves finish with the same record as St. Louis or any other NL playoff team, the Braves have the tiebreaker secured by virtue of head-to-head winning records against the Cardinals, Dodgers, Reds and Pirates.

The Braves have only a four-game home series against the Phillies remaining in the regular season, beginning Thursday.

“We’ve just got to settle in these next four games and kind of get this thing rolling,” Johnson said.

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