The Braves opted not to address their bullpen this winter, leaving many outsiders puzzled. The results have varied through the young season, a true roller-coaster experience, but Tuesday’s latest implosion won’t dwindle the detractors.
Staked to a 5-2 lead, the Braves’ relief group combusted in the seventh and ninth innings, paving way to a 9-6 loss to the Diamondbacks that wasted another estimable offensive effort and Max Fried’s strong six innings. It dropped the Braves to 2-3 on their current homestand.
“Those are tough, when you come back and score all those runs,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We just had an off night in the bullpen. I hope it’s just a one-night thing, we’ll know more down the road. They’d been pitching really good. It’s going to happen. We’ve done it to clubs so there are going to be days like this.”
Fried kept Arizona’s offense, among the league’s most potent even without Paul Goldschmidt, in check through six innings. He exited after 96 pitches with a 5-2 lead, positioning the Braves for their third-straight win.
But the bullpen was a sieve in the seventh. Arizona erupted upon Fried’s exit, activating another downfall cued by walks. The Braves needed 34 pitches and three relievers to record an out. The Diamondbacks scored four times, enough to undo the good of the Braves’ own four-run fifth.
Chad Sobotka hit back-to-back Diamondbacks before walking the third. He was pulled for Jesse Biddle, who served up a two-RBI single to Eduardo Escobar and walked David Peralta. The Braves dipped into their bullpen again, this time Luke Jackson, trying to stop the bleeding.
Christian Walker singled off Jackson, tying the game. Wilmer Flores’ grounder finally provided an out, but it also gave the Diamondbacks a lead. Jackson retired the next two to conclude the woeful 48-pitch frame.
“I was throwing a lot of non-competitive pitches out there,” said Biddle, who saw just two hitters. “And I wasn’t even close to getting the job done tonight. I was really bad. I let the team down. I had a chance to pick up Chad and I obviously didn’t. I can’t tell you how much I want the ball tomorrow.”
Ozzie Albies gave the Braves a mulligan with his solo shot in the bottom of the inning. Shane Carle kept it a tied game in the eighth, but Walker homered off A.J. Minter to open the ninth, putting Arizona up for good as shallow “We want Kimbrel” chants broke out at SunTrust park, a continued plea for the team to fortify its bullpen.
“Y’all saw what happened,” Minter said. “I don’t know if the cutter got too much of the plate but he hit it out of the ballpark. Go home, go to sleep, wake up tomorrow and go to work again.”
The Braves’ lineup is a gauntlet for opposing arms. They did it again Tuesday, roping hard hit after hard hit, giving their pitching ample breathing room. The bullpen protecting the lead is a coin flip – some night it’s dominant, like in Colorado, and others it’s illuminated like the northern lights.
Good nights won’t get much attention, but their worst will always come to the forefront. That’s life of a reliever, but it doesn’t change the increasingly obvious: The Braves’ greatest weakness lies in how they handle post-starter innings.
“Bullpen came up short,” Minter said. “I came up short. It’s on me. You have to win those. Those games are important. We didn’t get the job done.”
Biddle, who had a 2.08 ERA entering the night, couldn’t get an out. Sobotka, who displayed the stuff of a potential closer in Colorado, couldn’t get an out. Fresh off a Triple-A stint, Carle walked two but didn’t allow a run. Minter, the primary closer, was charged with three.
The relievers combined to allow five hits, six walks and seven runs in three innings. It ballooned the team’s bullpen ERA to 5.43 through 16 games.
“We just didn’t get the job done tonight as a group,” Biddle said. “We’ve also had some really good games, and you have to try to take the positives and run with them. Leave the negatives behind. … We let the team down. It’s just plain and simple. It hurts. But the sun comes up tomorrow. I promise you we’re not going to let it happen again.”
A cold reality: It will happen again. It’ll happen to the Braves and the other 29 teams. But they need to figure out how to keep those nights to a minimum. They need consistency that supports confidence when sporting a three-run lead.
No bullpen is perfect, but the Braves’ decision to trust in their guys – for better or worse – magnifies any spurt of bullpen struggles. That’s how this works, no differently than a quarterback throwing three interceptions or a point guard shooting 3-for-17.
“It’s definitely tough, but these guys are extremely talented,” Fried said. “You’ve seen how they’ve been pitching over the last couple weeks. I know they’ll be back in here ready to go tomorrow, brush it off and act like it never happened. Tomorrow is a new day.”