Johnson blows lead in 8th inning, Braves lose series to Mariners

Braves reliever Jim Johnson looks to the stands after being pulled in the eighth inning against the Seattle Mariners at SunTrust Park. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Braves reliever Jim Johnson looks to the stands after being pulled in the eighth inning against the Seattle Mariners at SunTrust Park. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Braves twice came back from one-run deficits and took a lead in the seventh inning, but manager Brian Snitker hasn’t given up using deposed closer Jim Johnson in the late innings of close games, and he and the Braves paid a price for that Wednesday against the Mariners.

Johnson faced four batters without recording an out in the eighth inning, and all four scored to send the Mariners to a 9-6 win in a series-clinching finale at SunTrust Park. The Braves led 5-4 before Johnson entered the game.

“The eighth inning got away from us, couldn’t stop the bleeding,” said Snitker, who was asked what Johnson has lost that’s rendered him so ineffective for two months. “I don’t know, confidence. Location, sink. The ball’s not sinking like it did. They (Johnson and coaches) have been working hard in the bullpen. Hoped maybe some of that would have paid off today; it didn’t.”

Ender Inciarte had four hits and left-handed relief prospect A.J. Minter struck out the first two batters he faced in a perfect eighth inning in his major league debut for the Braves, those performances overshadowed by the Johnson meltdown and the Braves’ sixth loss in their past eight games at SunTrust Park.

They’ve dropped three consecutive home series including the first two on a nine-game homestand that concludes with a series against the Rockies that starts Friday. Snitker looked particularly upset after this loss, as did president of baseball operations John Hart when he left the clubhouse with general manager John Coppolella after their customary brief postgame meeting with Snitker.

Snitker said he wanted to rest closer Arodys Vizcaino and top setup man Jose Ramirez and Sam Freeman, each of whom had pitched in the first two games of the Mariners series, though none had pitched the past three days in a row and only Vizcaino had pitched three time in the past four days.

“I just kind of felt that they’d had a lot” of work, Snitker said. “I was trying to get around those guys; with the day off (Thursday) you get them two days and then we’ve got a long stretch beginning Friday. You hate to do it, but then again probably in retrospect you pitch them. But guys have been pitching a lot, and I just chose not to (use them).”

Johnson entered with a 5-4 lead and gave up a double, walk, two-run single to Taylor Motter and another single to start the eighth inning, with a wild pitch and a stolen base mixed in. He was replaced by Dan Winkler, making his second appearance since a 15-month rehab from a fractured elbow.

Winkler promptly surrendered a three-run homer to Kyle Seager that bounced off the top of the fence just beyond the outstretched glove of center fielder nciarte.

Johnson, who lost the closer job at the end of July after a long slump, heard plenty of boos from a smallish crowd of 23,890 as he trudged off the field, and appeared to exchange words with fan. After the home run his final pitching line read four batters faced, three hits, four runs, one walk. And no outs.

He has a 9.31 in his past 23 appearances with a .345 opponents’ average and .952 opponents’ OPS. During that stretch since June 21, the veteran has allowed a staggering 30 hits, 20 earned runs and 12 walks in 19 1/3 innings. And he’s been worse lately, allowing 11 hits and 10 runs in 2 1/3 innings over his past four appearances, including multiple runs in three of those four games.

He blew a lead for the ninth time, matching his career high set in a 50-save season for Baltimore in 2013. Johnson blew eight of 30 save opportunities this season before he was replaced by Vizcaino in the closer role.

Johnson has been charged with four runs in each of his last two outings, the other Saturday against the Reds when he gave up four runs in the ninth inning, rendering the Braves’ four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth a mere footnote in an 11-8 loss.

The eighth-inning collapse Wednesday overshadowed a decent outing from knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, and three runs in the first two innings by a Braves team that’s struggled to score early.

Freddie Freeman extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a first-inning hit in all three games in the series including an RBI double Wednesday that sailed over the head of center fielder Guillermo Heredia.

Inciarte and Brandon Phillips each singled to start the first inning and both would’ve scored on Freeman’s hit if Phillips hadn’t missed second base on his initial pass. He had to circle back and tag it, making it only as far as third on the hit. Nick Markakis hit a sacrifice fly one out later for a 2-0 lead.

It was a short-lived lead as the Mariners answered with two runs in the second inning. Seager hit a leadoff single and Mitch Haniger doubled. One out later, Guillermo Heredia hit a sacrifice fly before pitcher Erasmo Ramirez singled to drive in the tying run.

The Braves moved back in front the bottom of the inning after a Dansby Swanson leadoff single. A sacrifice bunt and an Inciarte single later, Phillips’ ground-out scored Swanson for a 3-2 lead. Kemp grounded out to end the inning with runners on the corners after Freeman was walked intentionally.

Again, Dickey couldn’t protect the lead for even one inning, as the Mariners scored two in the third after Dickey gave up four hit in a span of five batters to start the inning including a double to Robinson Cano, who left the game with hamstring tightness after the hit.

Pitchers have been unusually productive hitting against the Braves, and Dickey gave up two singles to Ramirez, who has spent his six-year career in the American League and was 0-for-8 with four strikeouts and no walks before going 2-for-3 against Dickey.

The Mariners nine runners stranded through the first five innings including at least one runner left in scoring position in four of those five innings. They left the bases loaded in the third and fifth innings

Dickey got no decision and is 4-3 with a 2.74 ERA in his past 12 starts. The 11 hits allowed matched his season high set May 23 against the Pirates, when he gave up 11 with three walks in six innings but only three runs in a 4-3 win.

Snitker fielded plenty of questions about using Jim Johnson, who didn't retire any of the four batters he faced to start a 5-run Mariners 8h inning in a 9-6 Braves loss. (Video by David O'Brien)