Braves melt down again late, lose 4-3 as Red Sox sweep

BOSTON – After 7 1/2 innings of strong pitching and enough hits to build a two-run lead against the Red Sox, the Braves melted down and blew a lead. Again.

This time it was fielding mistakes, including a costly error apiece against each of the Upton brothers in the Braves outfield, that served as the accelerant in a four-single, two-run eighth inning that tied the score for the Red Sox, who pulled out a 4-3 win against closer Craig Kimbrel on a walk-off hit and error by Tommy La Stella in the ninth.

“We didn’t handle the baseball the last two innings and it came back and bit us,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves were swept in four games of a home-and-home series against the Red Sox, blowing leads in three of them including leads after the sixth inning in two games. “It’s not like us to do that a lot. Those last two innings of the ballgame, you’ve got to take care of the baseball. And we didn’t do that.”

Thursday was a new low for the Braves, who lose for first time in 22 games when leading after seven innings.

Kimbrel, who got the last out of the eighth inning, walked the first two batters in the ninth before Xander Bogaerts hit an infield single to Chris Johnson, whose throw to second base was dropped by second baseman La Stella, allowing Jackie Bradley Jr. to score the winning run.

It was the second major league game for La Stella, who was called up from Triple-A on Wednesday.

“If you can’t throw the ball over the plate it’s kind of hard to get outs,” said Kimbrel (0-1). “That ball was hit hard and I thought Chris did a good job to get a glove on it. It’s unfortunate that the ball got away like it did…. Mike (Minor) threw a great game. We just didn’t finish it up in the bullpen. We’re supposed to come in and throw scoreless innings and get the starting pitcher the win, and we didn’t do that.”

The last two innings was ugly, agonizing stuff for the Braves and for their fans, who’ve watched the team squander leads and fail to to take advantage of opportunities the way the Red Sox did again and again. They were swept home and away by a Boston squad that lost 10 in a row before winning Monday in Atlanta.

The Braves frittered away the last half-game of their NL East lead over idle Miami, and now the two teams are tied for first entering the Braves’ three-game series at Marlins park that starts Friday night.

“It’s a tough way to lose,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a tough one to swallow, really. We’ll see how we come back tomorrow and handle it…. We need to get better. Because we need to win those one-run or two-run games. You feel better when somebody (beats you with) a base hit or hits a two-run homer, something like that. I know I feel that way and I’m sure those guys in there feel the same way.

“You never like to lose ballgames, but to lose them like that is really — it’s not good.”

Minor pitched seven strong innings and the Braves led 3-1 until the eighth inning, when Brock Holt led off with a single against reliever David Carpenter and left fielder Justin Upton booted it to allow the runner to reach second. Bogaerts followed with a single that was enough to score Holt from second to cut the lead to 3-2.

Dustin Pedroia hit what was ruled the third consecutive single of the inning, a possible double-play grounder that La Stella tried to field behind second base and fell as he did so. A.J. Pierzynski added another single to center field, where B.J. Upton had it glance off his glove for another error, allowing the tying run to score and Pedroia to advance to third.

“Tried to make a play at the plate to stop the tying run,” Upton said. “The grass just kind of grabbed (the ball) and shot it away from me. You can’t really anticipate that. I had it lined up right in the middle of my body, went to field it, and the grass just kind of took it away from me. You don’t want it to happen, you don’t really see it a lot, but that’s what happens.

“Saw a couple of them that inning. The one that shot by Justin, same thing. The one that Tommy had a chance for the double-play on, did the same exact thing. Just a moment you’re not really anticipating.”

The Braves escaped without further damage after Carpenter struck out Jonny Gomes, left-hander Luis Avilan struck out Grady Sizemore and intentionally walked David Ortiz, and Kimbrel got David Ross to fly out to end the inning with the bases loaded.

It was the first time this season that Kimbrel entered a game in the eighth inning, and afterward Gonzalez wondered if that might have contributed to his control problems in the ninth when he walked No. 9 hitter Jackie Bradley Jr. and Holt consecutively to start the inning.

Kimbrel said entering the game earlier than usual didn’t affect him.

“Getting up early didn’t, two walks in the ninth did,” he said.

The late-innings debacle overshadowed what had been a promising night most of the way for the Braves. Jason Heyward’s two-out solo homer in the third inning provided a lead would hold until the eighth, as Minor showed how far he’s come since the last time he faced the Red Sox at their venerable ballpark in 2012.

Minor allowed seven hits and one run in seven innings and was in position to get his third time in four quality starts since getting knocked around by the Cardinals three weeks ago. That is, until things fell apart after he left the game.

Minor had three strikeouts and no walks and retired seven of the last eight batters he faced after Brock Holt’s two-out double off the left-field wall in the fifth inning cut the Braves’ lead to 2-1. The Braves added an insurance run in the eighth when B.J. Upton hit a leadoff single and scored on Freeman’s long double to center field.

But it wasn’t enough insurance for the gaffes that ensued in the eighth.

In his only previous start against the Red Sox, Minor allowed seven runs (four earned) and three homers in 4 2/3 innings of a loss on June 24, 2012. That left him with a 3-6 record and 6.14 ERA through 14 starts that season, and worried that he might soon get sent to Triple-A.

But he stayed in the majors and soon figured some things out. Minor gave up four runs in five innings of a win against Washington six days later, and in 53 starts since he’s 22-16 with a 2.95 ERA. He began this season on the disabled list, gave up 11 hits and six runs in 4-1/3 innings against the Cardinals in his second start, but in four starts since Minor is 2-1 with a 2.02 ERA.

He was staked to a 1-0 in the third inning on Heyward’s two-out home run, his fifth of the season and second in three nights against the Red Sox. The Braves’ imposing leadoff hitter has three homers among six extra-base hits in seven career games against Boston, including two homers in five games at Fenway Park.

Heyward has hit .318 (21-for-66) with three homers and an on-base percentage above .400 in his past 17 games. He went 1-for-5 and struck out with a runner at second base to end the eighth inning.

The Braves extended the lead to 2-0 in the fourth inning when Freeman drew a leadoff walk, advanced to second on umpire Bob Davidson’s balk call against Jake Peavy, and scored on Evan Gattis’ one-out single to the left-field corner. (They don’t call Davidson “Balking Bob” without reason, as ex-Braves star Chipper Jones noted on more than one occasion.)