CHICAGO – The majors’ best bullpen could use some rest.
Braves relievers entered Sunday still carrying the best ERA (2.45) and lowest opponents’ batting average (.217) in the majors, but having allowed eight earned runs in 11-2/3 innings in the first five games of their six-game road trip, and blown two leads after the seventh inning.
“We’ve been really good all season,” said left-hander Luis Avilan, who still had the National League’s third-best relief ERA (1.60) despite hitting a rough patch lately. “ It’s OK if we have one week different. It’s nothing to be panicked about or something. Just a bad week, that’s it.”
Major league saves leader Craig Kimbrel blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning of a 6-5 loss at Washington in the first game of the trip. And in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Cubs, relievers Scott Downs and David Carpenter gave up three hits and a sacrifice fly in a three-run eighth, after starter Kris Medlen left with a 1-0 lead and a runner on first with one out in the inning.
Among key Braves relievers, Avilan and and Downs have struggled to varying degrees during the final weeks of the season.
“Whether it’s April, May, June or whenever, pitchers go through a little funk just like hitters do,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “And this time of year everybody’s a little banged up, everybody’s a little ‘not right.’ We try to manage that as best we can, you know? But it is what it is. We’ll get them straightened out again.”
Avilan, tied for ninth in the NL in appearances (72) before Sunday, had a 4.32 ERA and .324 opponents’ average in his past 12 appearances, allowing 11 hits and four runs in 8-1/3 innings. This after posting a 0.62 ERA and .118 OA in his previous 47 appearances, with only 17 hits and three earned runs allowed in 43-1/3 innings.
Nearing the end of his first full season in the majors, Avilan was asked Sunday how he felt physically.
“I feel good enough,” he said. “I don’t feel, like, tired. I don’t feel the same as the beginning of the season, but it’s almost over, before the playoffs. Just keep throwing the ball….
Downs had an 18.00 ERA and .625 opponents’ average in eight September games through Saturday, allowing 10 hits, four runs and two walks with two strikeouts in two total innings while recording one or no outs in each appearance.
He replaced Medlen in the eighth inning Saturday and faced two batters, allowing a single and an RBI double in the 37-year-old lefty’s 66th appearance of the season.
“Yeah, we’ve had a lot of appearances,” Avilan said, speaking of the relievers in general. “But I think everybody in the bullpen is trying to do their best. We’re just thinking like it’s a bad week. We’ll just keep fighting, trying to do what we’ve done throughout the season.”
Once the Braves clinch the division, some of their key relievers and position players are expected to get a little more rest, although Gonzalez doesn’t plan to rest multiple lineup regulars at once, since the NL’s best record and home-field advantage are still up for grabs.
“I’d really like to take a couple of days off before the playoffs to rest my arm, and be fresh for the playoffs,” said Avilan, who will welcome the three days off between the regular season and the start of a division series. “It’s going to be perfect. It’s going to be wonderful.”
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