Braves’ rally falls short, losing streak reaches 7 games

Even in games when the Braves had given Aaron Harang little or no run support, they at least played crisp defense behind the veteran pitcher. That changed Monday against the Cardinals, when an error by the Braves’ best defender led to two unearned runs in a 4-3 loss that extended their skid to seven games.

The Braves rallied most of the way back from 4-0 deficit with a two-run sixth inning and Ramiro Pena’s seventh-inning homer, but they couldn’t complete the comeback on a night when they went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position to continue a disturbing trend.

Harang and other Braves said the team’s confidence remains solid despite the recent woes, most of which are offense-related.

“The guys battled and made it a one-run deficit, really made them bite their nails over there,” Harang said. “Everybody’s good in here. We’re just going to keep going out and battling every day. We’ll flip this thing around. We’re not worried about it yet.”

Pena also doubled, but the utility man was in no mood to enjoy his productive night as a fill-in for struggling Dan Uggla.

“At the end of the day we lost, and we need to win games,” Pena said. “So it’s kind of tough.”

Jason Heyward doubled with one out in the seventh and was stranded there when the inning ended, and the Braves had two on in the ninth when suddenly slumping Justin Upton struck out looking to end the game, his fourth strikout of the night and 11th in four games.

The Braves are 6-for-51 with runners in scoring position during their seven-game losing streak, their longest since an eight-game jag in May 2012. They took some solace in hitting several balls hard with runners on base, unlike during the weekend series when they were swept at home by the Giants, or last week when they dominated at Miami.

“We were in the game the whole game,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “That’s something we haven’t been able to say the past week. So you’ve got to take the positives when you get them, and go in tomorrow with a better mindset, because we put up some really good (at-bats) against Shelby Miller and he was throwing mid-90s just like we’ve been facing.”

The Cardinals broke a scoreless tie with a three-run fifth inning, aided by Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ botched grounder. In losing his second consecutive start, Harang (3-3) was charged with nine hits, four runs (two earned) and one walk with six strikeouts in six innings.

“It kind of got him off-balance,” Harang said of the Simmons error. “Those things are going to happen. I told him, hey man, keep your head up. Don’t kick yourself over one little thing like this. I said, you’re probably going to save my butt a few times this year, so don’t even worry about this. You’ve just got to move past it.”

After totaling three runs and going 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position while getting swept by the Giants, the Braves’ RISP futility continued with a new team in town. The Braves’ leadoff hitter reached base in four of the first five innings, including a third-inning double, and they failed to score in any of those situations.

Freeman lined out to deep center to end the third and Jason Heyward lined out to a leaping second baseman to end the fifth.

Still, their only hit in 12 at-bats with a runner in scoring position came in the sixth inning, when Justin Upton drew a leadoff walk and Freeman singled. With runners on the corners, Evan Gattis singled in the Braves’ first run. B.J. Upton followed with a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 4-2.

“Our bats were a lot better,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We put a couple good at-bats with Gattis hitting to the right side. Freeman did a nice job going first to third. B.J. got a sac fly RBI out of that because of Freeman going to third base on that base hit. So there were a lot of positives, other that at the end, you’d like to get the W no matter how you get it. But offensively it was a good night.”

The Braves had runners at second and third with one out in the first inning after a Heyward leadoff walk and Freeman double. But Miller (4-2) got out of the jam by striking out both Gattis and B.J. Upton to end the inning.

B.J. Upton hit fifth and Justin Upton batted second in a revamped batting order Gonzalez deployed in an attempt to shake things up. The more glaring change had the pitcher batting eighth ahead of Pena.

After Pena bounced a double over the right-center field fence to start the third inning, Heyward and Justin Upton both struck out and Freeman lined out to the warning track to end the inning. That made the Braves 0-for-5 with four strikeouts with runners in scoring position through three innings.

“Teams are going to go on runs like this,” Harang said. “We’re going to battle out of it. I don’t think we’re stressing yet in here. You’d much rather go on a stretch like this early in the year when teams are about even, because you do this kind of run when it’s getting near the end of August and early September, that’s when things get out of control and you definitely lose ground.”

The Cardinals didn’t have a runner reach base with less than two outs until the fifth inning, but when they did they capitalized.

Simmons didn’t play Sunday because of what Gonzalez termed a “family matter.” He was back in the lineup Monday, but his defense wasn’t up to its usual exemplary standards, as evident by misplayed grounders in the third and fifth innings. Both looked like errors but were initially ruled hits, although the fifth-inning ruling was later changed.

Peter Bourjos singled to lead off the fifth, and Mark Ellis hit a grounder near second base that Simmons appeared to take his eye off for a moment to size up whether he had a shot at a double play. When the ball bounced off his glove the Cardinals had runners at first and second with none out.

A sacrifice bunt later, Matt Carpenter hit a two-run double up the middle for a 2-0 lead. One out later, Matt Holliday lined a one-hop single that skipped off Johnson’s glove into left field, bringing in the third run.

The Cardinals added a run in the sixth on three consecutive singles to start the inning against Harang, who got out of a bases-loaded situation without further damage by inducing a comebacker from Molina. Harang threw to third for the force to end the inning.

Bourjos, who had the RBI single in the inning, was initially called safe on the play at third, but on appeal it was overturned. Harang said the inning exemplified the Cardinals’ approach.

“You get runners on second and third and Bourjos takes a fastball in and hits it through past second base,” he said. “It’s little things like that, I mean, that’s what makes them good. And we had a couple of missed opportunities to come back.”

The Braves tried to play small ball in the fifth after Simmons’ leadoff single. Harang’s sacrifice bunt and Pena’s groundout moved Simmons to third, but Heyward lined out to second baseman Ellis, who made a leaping stop to end the inning.

At that point the Braves were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. They went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and two outs, sinking their majors-worst average in those situations to .121 (13-for-107), including Freeman’s 5-for-10.