Messy eighth costs Braves in loss to Royals

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JULY 23: Pitcher Dallas Keuchel #60 of the Atlanta Braves throws a pitch in the first inning during the game against the Kansas City Royals at SunTrust Park on July 23, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Credit: Mike Zarrilli

Credit: Mike Zarrilli

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JULY 23: Pitcher Dallas Keuchel #60 of the Atlanta Braves throws a pitch in the first inning during the game against the Kansas City Royals at SunTrust Park on July 23, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

If the concept of a “trap series” exists in baseball, the Braves’ two-game mid-week dance with the Royals that’s sandwiched between two crucial division matchups would serve as the textbook example.

The Braves lost to the Royals 5-4 on Tuesday night at SunTrust Park. It wasn’t due to a lack of focus or, as other sports occasionally cite it, not taking an opponent seriously. Instead, it became a trap game because Danny Duffy put together one of his best starts of the year, outdueling Dallas Keuchel. And what was mostly a tight contest came unraveled when a pair of relievers couldn’t locate.

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Kansas City’s Lucas Duda, who had a brief stay with the Braves late last season, halted Anthony Swarzak’s scoreless streak in the eighth. The pinch-hitting slugger dented a ball into the seats, putting the Royals up 3-2. It was the second run Swarzak had given up with the Braves (second homer) and ended his MLB-long streak at 17 innings.

“It’s going to happen,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It was the right pitch. He didn’t get it all and the hitter did.”

It only got worse. After a walk and single, Swarzak was replaced by Wes Parsons, who’d put together one of the least inspiring performances of his career. Hunter Dozier’s single loaded the bases. Parsons issued a six-pitch walk to Jorge Soler and later plucked Humberto Arteaga, plating another pair. Swarzak was charged with the two runs.

At the conclusion of the eighth, the Royals turned a 2-2 barnburner into a 5-2 advantage. It was a less-common bullpen meltdown for the Braves, who’ve been much more consistent in that area since their early season implosions.

Parsons will likely be sent back to Triple-A. Snitker opted for him in that spot hoping he’d deliver a groundball against right-handers. It didn’t happen, but even with hindsight, Snitker trusted his reliever.

“That’s what he’s noted for,” Snitker said. “I was just hoping he’d put one on the ground and get us out of the inning. That’s usually what we think of him as, coming in and getting the ball over the plate and putting the ball on the ground. It was a good spot for him.”

Kuechel was excellent in his first start with catcher Tyler Flowers. He reached double-digit strikeouts for the sixth time in his career and for the first time since his Cy Young 2015 campaign. His 12 strikeouts fell one shy of matching a career high. He also doubled for the first extra-base hit of his career in the fifth inning.

Duffy fanned 11 Braves, besting his previous season high of eight. He allowed one run, via Josh Donaldson’s RBI double, across six frames. He left with a 2-1 lead after Alex Gordon hit the go-ahead homer off Keuchel.

“That was pretty good,” Flowers said. “I’ve always had a hard time with him. He always seems to make good pitches on me and it seemed like he was doing it with the other guys. Lively fastball, plays up a bit more than the gun says. Seems like he had a good feel for his off-speed too. So that combination, and being on the attack with the ability to pitch up in the zone, makes him pretty tough.”

The Braves still came within a swing of winning. They opened the ninth with three consecutive singles to pull within a run. But Ian Kennedy retired the ensuing three, including inducing a popup in foul ground from Ozzie Albies and striking out Austin Riley, to seal it.

Division standings

Credit is due to the rebuilding Royals, who’ve won eight of their last 11. It’s been a rare occurrence this season when the Braves weren’t the hotter team entering a series. Still, it’s a letdown to lose to a group that was 15-35 on the road while the two teams chasing you in the division standings won.

The Braves wrap up the series Wednesday with Julio Teheran facing Flowery Branch native Brad Keller. They’re off Thursday before a six-game road trip in Philadelphia and Washington.

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