Simmons’ error costly as Braves’ skid reaches 7 games

Even in games when the Braves gave Aaron Harang little or no offensive support, they at least played crisp defense behind the veteran pitcher. That changed Monday against the Cardinals, when an error by the Braves’ best defender led to two unearned runs in a 4-3 loss that extended their skid to seven games.

The Braves rallied most of the way back from 4-0 deficit with a two-run sixth inning and Ramiro Pena’s seventh-inning homer, but they couldn’t complete the comeback on a night when they went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position to continue a disturbing trend. Pena also doubled, but the utility man was in no mood to enjoy his productive night.

“At the end of the day we lost, and we need to win games,” Pena said.

Jason Heyward doubled with one out in the seventh and was stranded there when the inning ended, and the Braves had two on in the ninth when suddenly slumping Justin Upton struck out looking to end the game, his fourth strikout of the night and 11th in four games.

The Braves are 6-for-51 with runners in scoring position during their losing streak, their longest since an eight-game skid in May 2012. They took some solace in hitting several balls hard with runners on base.

“We were in the game the whole game,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “That’s something we haven’t been able to say the past week. So you’ve got to take the positives when you get them, and go in tomorrow with a better mindset.”

The Cardinals broke a scoreless tie with a three-run fifth inning, aided by Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ botched grounder. In losing his second consecutive start, Harang (3-3) was charged with nine hits, four runs (two earned) and one walk with six strikeouts in six innings.

“It kind of got him off-balance,” Harang said of the Simmons error. “Those things are going to happen. I told him, hey man, keep your head up. Don’t kick yourself over one little thing like this. I said, you’re probably going to save my butt a few times this year, so don’t even worry about this.”

After totaling three runs and going 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position while getting swept by the Giants, the Braves’ RISP futility continued with a new team in town. Atlanta’s leadoff hitter reached base in four of the first five innings, including a third-inning double, and the Braves failed to score in any of those situations. Freeman lined out to deep center to end the third and Jason Heyward lined out to a leaping second baseman to end the fifth.

Still, their only hit in 12 at-bats with a runner in scoring position came in the sixth, when Justin Upton drew a leadoff walk and Freeman singled. With runners on the corners, Evan Gattis singled in the Braves’ first run. B.J. Upton followed with a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 4-2.

“Our bats were a lot better,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “There were a lot of positives, other that at the end.”

The Braves had runners at second and third with one out in the first inning after a Heyward leadoff walk and Freeman double. But Miller (4-2) got out of the jam by striking out both Gattis and B.J. Upton to end the inning.

B.J. Upton hit fifth and Justin Upton batted second in a revamped batting order Gonzalez deployed in an attempt to shake things up. The more glaring change had the pitcher batting eighth ahead of Pena, who started in place of struggling second baseman Dan Uggla.

After Pena bounced a double over the right-center field fence to start the third inning, Heyward and Justin Upton both struck out and Freeman lined out to the warning track to end the inning. That made the Braves 0-for-5 with four strikeouts with runners in scoring position through three innings.

The Cardinals didn’t have a runner reach base with less than two outs until the fifth, but when they did they capitalized.

Simmons didn’t play Sunday because of what Gonzalez termed a “family matter.” He was back in the lineup Monday and misplayed grounders in the third and fifth innings. Both looked like errors but were initially ruled hits, although the fifth-inning ruling was later changed to E6.

Peter Bourjos singled to lead off the fifth, and Mark Ellis hit a grounder near second base that bounced off Simmons’ glove. The Cardinals had runners at first and second with none out. A sacrifice bunt later, Matt Carpenter’s two-run double gave them a 2-0 lead. One out later, Matt Holliday lined a one-hop single off Johnson’s glove to bring in another run.

The Braves tried to play small ball in the fifth after Simmons’ leadoff single. Harang’s sacrifice bunt and Pena’s groundout moved Simmons to third, but Heyward lined out to second baseman Ellis, who made a leaping stop to end the inning.

At that point the Braves were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. They went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and two outs, sinking their majors-worst average in those situations to .121 (13-for-107) including Freeman’s 5-for-10.

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