ST. LOUIS – The Braves’ bullpen has righted itself since a dreadful July, but that improvement comes as the starting rotation’s struggles worsen and the pressure increases for Atlanta relievers and hitters to shoulder unrealistic portions of the load.
Entering Sunday’s series finale at St. Louis, the Braves were 6-18 with a 5.06 ERA in their past 24 games and starting pitchers had lasted seven innings just three times and issued a National League-worst 4.21 walks per nine innings over that span. In the past 10 days that included seven walks in 4 2/3 innings by rookie Sean Newcomb on Aug. 3, three walks in five innings by Julio Teheran on Tuesday and four walks in 2 2/3 innings by Mike Foltynewicz on Friday.
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey issued a team-high 53 walks in 134 innings before his Sunday start, a rate of 3.6 walks per nine innings that was his highest since he became a full-time starter in 2010.
Lucas Sims issued just one walk in 5 1/3 innings of his third start Saturday, but hit two batters with pitches in the critical three-run fourth inning of a 6-5 loss to the Cardinals.
“They take advantage of everything that you don’t do right,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of the Cardinals after Saturday’s loss. “You pay for every little mistake. It’s a hot team so you’ve got to make pitches, you’ve got to make plays, you’ve got to do everything right in order to beat a club like this right now…. It’s that one inning that’s hurting us. We’ve just got to figure out a way to minimize damage in innings and stop bleeding, which is easier said than done.”
Stopping the bleeding is not something that Braves starters have done well, particularly in recent weeks.
Atlanta pitchers – starters and relievers -- allowed 36 home runs and 90 walks in 210 innings during the 6-18 stretch before Sunday, for a walks rate of 3.94 per nine innings that was the highest in the league. That period that began after the Braves had made a methodical, encouraging climb to the .500 mark at 45-45 on July 16.
Their fortunes have spiraled since, with the entire pitching staff struggling during the last two weeks of July and the starters continuing to stumble in August.
The bullpen, meanwhile, has made strides since Arodys Vizcaino moved into the closer role and Jim Johnson was dropped to primarily seventh-inning duties. Since Vizcaino became closer July 30 the Braves had not given up a lead before Sunday, recording three saves and three holds in that span.
Setup man Jose Ramirez had a 1.06 ERA in his past 18 appearances before Sunday, totaling 19 strikeouts while allowing two earned runs, seven hits and six walks in 17 innings. Both of his earned runs allowed came on home runs including Paul DeJong’s seventh-inning leadoff homer Saturday in an 8-5 loss.
Johnson allowed two hits and one walk in four scoreless innings over five appearances since being dropped from the closer role.
“Look at like the transformation that Jose’s gone through this season from last season,” said Johnson, the veteran leader of the bullpen. “He’s not just a thrower anymore. Some of it’s trial by fire -- these guys get put in situations where they kind of have to learn on the fly. I think there’s been progress made by a lot of the guys. We have some talent down there.
“As a group, I don’t think any of us pitched well in July, so it’s just kind of focusing on doing the right things to help our team win, because we know our lineup is really good at scoring runs late and we’ve just got to kind of hold it and see what they can do. Obviously we’re looking for our luck to turn a little bit lately. But yeah, you’ve got to try to find the good things when things aren’t going so well. Just stay the course.”