PITTSBURGH – After Braves starting pitchers worked at least seven innings and gave up two or fewer runs every game during a competitive weekend series at Kansas City, the momentum ended almost as abruptly Monday as a streak of 21 2/3 walk-free innings by Braves pitchers ended.
Braves starter Williams Perez snapped the latter by walking Pirates leadoff hitter John Jaso to start the first inning, then took care of the momentum by giving up three runs that inning to send Pittsburgh toward an 8-5 win in a series opener at PNC Park.
After stranding a runner at third base in each of the first four innings and trailing 6-0 through five, the Braves made things interesting with a pair of two-run homers from Jeff Francoeur’s in the sixth inning and Kelly Johnson in the three-run eighth, the first of the year for both veterans.
“It feels good to get a homer, just to get a zero off there,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, down so much…. We did fight back. If we could’ve kept it a closer game and see what happens, it would’ve been nice.”
The deficit Perez put them in proved too much to overcome, especially after faltering reliever Alex Ogando gave up a two-run homer in the seventh to push the lead to 8-2.
After pitching eight dominant innings of two-hit ball against the Phillies Wednesday in his first game back from Triple-A, Perez was charged with nine hits, six runs and two walks in six innings Monday as the Braves’ majors-worst record fell to 9-28, including 1-3 to start a 10-game trip.
Perez wasn’t particularly sharp, but got no help from his up-the-middle infield defense. Shortstop Erick Aybar had two first-inning grounders go just beyond his reach as his limited defensive range was tested.
“Williams is going to wake up tomorrow and see his line, and it’s going to look not very good,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But a lot of balls just out of reach of defenders — in the infield, some bloops between outfielders and infielders. But I thought he pitched well. He’s a contact guy, they made contact against him. I think at one point in the first inning they had bases loaded and the ball hadn’t left the infield, pretty much.
“They were all ground balls just out of reach of our middle infielders (Aybar and Kelly Johnson).”
On a night when their pitching struggled, Braves power bats finally awakened in their first multi-homer game since opening day. The Braves have 11 home runs, while no other major league team had fewer than 29 homers before Monday, and 15 teams had more than 40.
The Braves hit just their second and third homers with someone on base; the first was by Drew Stubbs, who’s now with the Rangers. The Twins, with eight, were the only other major league team with fewer than 10 homers with runners on base before Monday.
They were 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position and trailed 8-3 before Johnson’s homer to straight center in the eighth off left-hander Cory Luebke. Francoeur pulled a line-drive homer to the left-field seats off lefty starter Jonathon Niese.
Those were the second and third homers of the season for the Braves in some 450 at-bats against left-handed pitchers, with Freddie Freeman responsible for the other two.
After Perez walked Jaso to start the first inning, he gave up consecutive infield singles that tested the range of veteran shortstop Manny Aybar. He’s floundered at the plate in his first season with the Braves, and Aybar also demonstrated again that his defense is not remotely comparable to that of the previous Braves shortstop.
“Yeah, we have gotten spoiled watching (Andrelton) Simmons set all kinds of records defensively, for a long time,” Gonzalez said. “(Aybar) is not Simmons, but he’s better than what we’re seeing. But we’re so used to it and so spoiled to see Simmons play, that sometimes you scratch your head and go, Simmons can make that play.”
After loading the bases with the walk and two hits, the Pirates got two runs on the next at-bat via a wild pitch and a Francisco Cervelli single. Matt Joyce added a two-out RBI single.
The Braves wasted scoring opportunities in each of the first four innings, a frustrating stretch in which they got their leadoff hitter on base every inning and stranded a runner at third base every inning.
They got an infield single and a walk to start the second inning, then three groundouts. After Nick Markakis’ leadoff double high off the right-field wall the third, the Braves got a groundout from Ender Inciarte to move him to third, then a Freeman strikeout and Francoeur line-out to right field.
After Johnson reached on an error to start the fourth inning, Tyler Flowers grounded into a double play.
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