SAN DIEGO – It’s rarely easy watching an aging athlete become a lion in winter and then start to stumble, but it’s particularly difficult in those rare occasions when the decline is as precipitous as Bartolo Colon’s has been this season.
The Braves brought Colon off the disabled list to give it another try Wednesday night, and the results were again abysmal in a 7-4 loss to the Padres. The 44-year-old pitcher lasted just four innings and gave up eight hits, six runs and three walks with two strikeouts.
“The reality is that I’ve been getting hit hard, and that’s the truth. You can’t just dance around it,” Colon said through an interpreter, and in any language that was a major understatement.
It was the fifth time in his past nine starts that Colon (2-8) allowed at least six earned runs in fewer than six innings and the third time in a row he gave up at least six runs – earned or otherwise – in fewer than four innings.
Now, the question on the minds of many Braves fans and others is, how much longer are the Braves willing to live with this increasingly embarrassing situation before they decide to release him or at least move him to the bullpen?
Manager Brian Snitker was asked whether Colon would get another start or when a decision might be made.
“I don’t know, I’ll be honest with you,” Snitker said. “I’m going to process everything tonight and then kind of see what’s going on.”
Colon, who left with the Braves trailing 6-0, fell to 1-6 with a 10.38 ERA in his past nine starts, a career-worst stretch in which he’s allowed a staggering 71 hits and 45 earned runs in 39 innings, plus nine unearned runs.
“I just feel like I’ve hit a bad streak, to be honest, and it’s tough to just snap out of it,” Colon said. “But it’s all you can do, you’ve got to work and see if you can get out of it any way you can.”
Asked about the possibility of being moved to the bullpen, Colon said, “I mean, that’s all for them to decide. I have zero to say with that, not my decision to make, not up to me. So whatever decision they make, that’s the one I’ll follow.”
The loss was only the third in 11 games for the Braves, who had Colon on the DL for just over three weeks, first with what they called a strained oblique and then a stiff back. Colon said he felt good Wednesday, that he felt strong.
“I thought maybe when he had the little side thing going on, maybe getting that a little better and having a little (rest) might re-charge the batteries a little bit,” Snitker said of the decision to start Colon again Wednesday. “He had a couple of good bullpens, and I told him when he went on the DL, I’m going to give you another start. I figured I owed him that.”
If the Braves decide to designate him for assignment and eventually release him, they would be writing it off as a sunk cost and would eat the remainder of his $12.5 million salary, minus perhaps $200,000-$300,000 if another team — the Mets, perhaps — picked him up for the remainder of the season.
Colon’s ERA climbed from 7.78 to 8.14, more than double his 20-year career ERA of 4.02 in 521 games including 513 starts. He had a 3.93 career ERA before this season, and his current ERA is nearly two runs higher than the career-worst 6.34 ERA posted in 2007 with the Angels.
The portly right-hander’s ERA this season is more than 4 ½ runs higher than his 3.43 ERA in 2016 with the Mets, when Colon went 15-8 and worked 191 2/3 innings for his fourth consecutive season with at least 190.
He was 44-34 with a 3.90 ERA during three seasons with the Mets, his ages 41 through 43 seasons, and the Braves gambled that he had enough left in that aging arm to produce similar results on a one-year, $12.5 million free-agent deal. He and 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey were signed to help bridge the Braves to next season when they could have some of their own pitching prospects ready to plug into the rotation.
Dickey has at least begun to live up to those expectations lately, but Colon, the oldest active major leaguer and winningest active pitcher, has been unmitigated bust with the Braves.
Colon allowed just one run in six innings in his season debut against the Mets and one run in seven innings to win his SunTrust Park debut in his third start. But he gave up six runs in his second start and 11 hits in seven innings of his fourth start, hints of possible trouble ahead.
Still, no one could have anticipated how bad things would get for the former American League Cy Young Award winner.
He nearly got through a scoreless first inning Wednesday after striking out two of the first three batters (he walked the other). But Hunter Renfroe checked his swing on a full-count pitch with two outs, drew the second walk of the inning, and Cory Spangenberg followed with a two-run double to the left-field corner.
The Padres added two runs in the third and moved to a 6-0 lead on Renfroe’s two-run triple in the fourth.
“Little bit of bad luck,” catcher Tyler Flowers said of Colon’s outing. “I don’t like to use that very often, but Renfroe shooting the ball down the line, Spangenberg shooting a pretty decent changeup opposite field down the line – I’m not sure how they were doing that because that’s not their normal game plan whatsoever. So I’d say a little bad luck in that regard.
“Checked swing (by Renfroe) could have gone our way; didn’t. I thought (Colon had) actually pretty good command overall. Couple of untimely misses. But really, there weren’t too many at-‘em balls. They were all finding holes, rolling between first and second a couple of times, on some pretty decent located pitches.”
The Braves got four runs in the sixth inning against Padres starter Luis Perdomo (3-4), who had little trouble through the first five innings. Former Padre Matt Kemp’s two-run hit was the biggest of four singles in the inning.
Flowers was hit in the left forearm by a pitch with bases loaded in the sixth, immediately raising a grotesque welt. He stayed in to run the bases but was replaced by Kurt Suzuki to start the bottom of the sixth.