Despite September slump, Braves remain in race

ARLINGTON, Texas – When August ended, the Braves had a 72-65 record and were 1 ½ games behind Milwaukee and a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh for the second and final National League wild-card position.

The Brewers had gone 4-8 since then, yet the Braves still entered Saturday 1 ½ games behind Milwaukee and now three games behind Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot.

The Braves had failed to capitalize on Milwaukee’s September struggles much as they’ve failed to capitalize on countless scoring opportunities throughout the season.

Before Saturday, the Braves’ September playoff push, as it were, had gone like this: 3-7 record with a 4.19 ERA and majors-worst .194 batting average. They had five homers and 26 runs scored in 10 games, including one or no runs in half of those games.

“These guys are battling,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said Saturday morning, 12 hours after the Braves’ 2-1 series-opening loss to the Rangers, who had baseball’s worst record and were eight losses from 100. “We’ve got a couple more weeks to go. We’ve got to keep battling.”

Despite their September struggles, the Braves were still in the thick of the wild-card race thanks to the comparable woes of the Brewers and a recent four-game skid by the Pirates.

“The opportunity is in front of us to stay in it and put ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs,” Wren said. “But we’ve got to seize the opportunity. That’s something we’ve got to kind of take hold of ourselves.”

For the most part, Braves pitchers have continued to hold up their end of the bargain in September, particularly starters Alex Wood and Mike Minor. But the offense, a disappointment all season, has been especially troubling at the worst possible time, when even modest production would have put the Braves ahead of the Brewers and Pirates.

Before Saturday, Freddie Freeman (.314) and Jason Heyward (.282) were the only Braves lineup regulars hitting above .235 in September, and six were hitting below .175: Phil Gosselin (.174), Andrelton Simmons (.171), Justin Upton (.167), Tommy La Stella (.150), Chris Johnson (.094) and Emilio Bonifacio (.063).

Justin Upton, who ranked among National League leaders in home runs (27), RBIs (96) and slugging percentage (.509) before Saturday, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Friday’s 2-1 loss, including a bases-loaded strikeout for the second out in the third inning on a full-count change-up in the dirt.

“I’m trying to get him to chase,” Rangers left-hander Derek Holland said. “It was 3-2, if he takes it maybe it’s a different game.”

That quote summed up much of the Braves’ offensive difficulties this season – too many hitters swinging at too many pitches out of the strike zone and not altering their approach with runners in scoring position and/or with two strikes.

The Braves’ .242 average with runners in scoring position was tied for seventh-lowest in the majors before Saturday, and among the six teams that were lower, only San Diego (68-78) was within 10 games of .500. The Braves were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position in Friday’s one-run loss.

“I think it’s one of those things where baseball, whether you like to believe it or not, there’s a lot of luck involved, and a lot of things can go wrong that really aren’t necessarily in your control,” Braves rookie Tommy La Stella said of the team’s offensive struggles. “You can hit balls hard and hit them right at people. I think we’ve done that a lot this year.

“I know that’s probably the case with every team, a lot of line-outs. But at the same time, we’ve had a lot of opportunities with guys in scoring position, we’ll line out to left field or line out to a second baseman, something like that. A couple of those go our way and it could be a very different story.”

Before Saturday, La Stella was 3-for-20 with one RBI in September. Versatile veteran Bonifacio was 1-for-16 with one walk and eight strikeouts. Chris Johnson was 3-for-32 with one RBI, three walks and 10 strikeouts.

The Braves had quite a few players who looked as if they were pressing.

“Everybody wants to do good,” Bonifacio said. “Sometimes you want to do too much. Especially in the position we are, you want to help the team. Sometimes you try to do too much.”

And still, despite their recent play, the Braves were in the thick of the wild-card race.

“Just come and play day by day, and see what we have,” Bonifacio said before Saturday’s game. “We can win, like, five games (in a row). But just try to win this game and get ready for tomorrow.”