After the Braves’ cringe-inducing loss Saturday in Miami, the basement level of Marlins Park was shrouded in dust. A Braves player, in his frustration, kicked a trash can that slammed into a fire extinguisher, popping it open and clouding the team’s clubhouse and entire downstairs.
So Braves players sat in the hallways, their clothes covered as the powder material kept spreading. The jerseys, hats, everybody – from players to coaches to reporters to organization employees – was masked after the explosion.
Yet it wasn’t even the biggest meltdown of the night.
The Braves, carrying a 6-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, suffered their worst loss of the year moments before the fire extinguisher detonated. The Marlins won 7-6 in 10 innings after one of the most vicious bullpen catastrophes in Braves history.
“We have to take a step back and look at it as a bad night,” said closer Mark Melancon, who began the ruinous ninth. “A bad night for me especially. There’s no excuse for that. … I didn’t pitch well tonight and I deserved to give up some runs.”
Melancon, declared the primary closer a day earlier, came on to finish the game. He struck out Harold Ramirez before succumbing to three consecutive singles. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz checked on Melancon, who was then trying to navigate a one-out, bases-loaded jam and protect a 6-3 lead.
Jon Berti singled home another run. 6-4. Manager Brian Snitker was left with no choice but turning to Shane Greene, a 2019 All-Star closer who’s been anything but steady in a Braves uniform. Greene had just lost his closer job to Melancon.
Isan Diaz singled against Greene to stack the bases again. Starlin Castro ripped a double to left, with a crowd of nearly 30,000 erupting at usually quiet Marlins Park. One run scores, 6-5. The next run scores, 6-6.
Diaz, the potential winning run, was gunned down at the plate after Adam Duvall and Charlie Culberson produced back-to-back stellar throws. The play was reviewed and upheld. Greene retired Garrett Cooper on a harmless grounder to send it to extras.
“They were finding holes,” Snitker said. “You couldn’t find a groundball to go to anybody. It was just a screwed-up inning, pretty much. They hit ground balls. We just couldn’t get them to hit any at anybody.”
The Braves, unable to score in the 10th, turned to converted starter Sean Newcomb in the bottom of the frame. Ramirez led off with a single. Newcomb attempted to pick him off at first, but the throw went awry, allowed Ramirez to move all the way to third with none out.
Martin Prado, a beloved former Brave, popped a sacrifice fly that plated Ramirez. Collapse complete. The Braves saw a game in which they once had a 99.6 percent chance to win (per Baseball Savant) slip away. It was one of the most painful losses the Braves have experienced in a long, long time.
To top it off, the loose fire extinguisher pushed players out of the clubhouse and filled the basement hallways. Collateral damage of a player - since confirmed to be Newcomb - expressing anger after the finish.
Nonetheless, it was a product of frustration these Braves rarely see extend beyond their own private doors. Since a sluggish 18-20 start, the Braves have been rolling. Even after Saturday’s debacle, they sit 6-1/2 ahead in the National League East.
That won’t mitigate the disappointment. The Braves have lost plenty of winnable games this season. The bullpen continuously provokes fans’ ire. But the complete package of this downfall hasn’t been matched in the Braves’ two seasons back in contention.
Last year’s horrendous finish in Chicago could be pinned on frigid conditions. Squandering a big lead against the Red Sox could be written off as botching a game to an all-time great club. There have been intolerable losses this year, but none compare to Saturday.
The Braves acquired Melancon and Greene to fortify their bullpen, often considered their weakest link. Melancon, who came over from the Giants, is several years removed from recording 51 saves in a campaign.
A ground-ball specialist, he’s still considered a plus reliever. On Saturday, he just wasn’t.
“I didn’t lose any confidence in myself or the bullpen,” Melancon said. “We’re going to come together real nice at a time that’s coming soon. We have some kinks to work out and I’m not concerned about it. We have a lot of mentally strong guys here. It’s a little bit like spring training here right now (for the new players), but there’s no excuse. That’s part of it.”
Greene was an All-Star last month, converting 22 of 25 save chances for the Tigers. He was among the most coveted players available on July 31. The Braves got him at a marginal cost, making matters seem all the better.
“I think he’ll be alright,” Snitker said. “I still have a lot of confidence in him. I still have a lot of faith in him. We just have to keep running him out there and hopefully he gets it going.”
But when the Braves added Greene, the expectation wasn’t that he’d need to get going. There wasn’t supposed to be a grace period. The thought was that the Braves, after a trio of bullpen adds, were primed for a run in October.
Instead, the newcomers have added to the misery of an unsolvable equation. The Braves have tried it all. They’ve promoted hot-shot arms from Triple-A. They’ve turned starters into relievers. They were active on the trade market, targeting veterans with resumes.
It’s equated to the same dilemma. Mike Soroka’s seven scoreless innings were vanquished. Ozzie Albies’ production was overridden. Johan Camargo’s pinch-hit three-run homer in the ninth rendered a footnote.
“They all have great work ethic,” said the always level-headed Soroka, defending his bullpen. “You see how bad they want it. They come in, they want it just as bad as anybody else if not more. So games like this are going to happen, but at the same time, you’ll have games where you go four or five innings and then they pick you up with four or five straight zeroes. It’s going to happen. I know they’ll work to straighten things out and down the stretch, they’ll be there.”
Despite the team’s unwavering faith, the Braves cannot find the right combination to finish games. Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Melancon, Greene. They have another month-plus to figure it out before the postseason, but the only way that happens is if one individual takes hold of the role. To this point, on Aug. 10 of a season that began March 31, that simply hasn’t happened.
That wasn’t anticipated when the Braves concocted their bold deadline. Now, with their options mostly locked in, they can only hope today’s pains will forge a stronger group by October.
“Hopefully everything works out,” Snitker said, “And in the end, it is (stronger).”
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