Their bullpen has been arguably the Braves’ greatest strength this season, but Saturday it sprang a leak in the eighth inning and cost the Braves a chance to clinch the National League East title.
After Kris Medlen left the game with one out and a one-run lead in the eighth, relievers Scott Downs and David Carpenter gave up the lead and the game in a 3-1 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field, forcing the Braves to wait a little longer to pop champagne that was on ice in the visitor’s clubhouse.
“It’s tough, but I’ve been a bullpen guy and I know how tough that job is,” Medlen said. “Those dudes do their best, and they’ve carried us the entire year. These things happen. Nobody in this clubhouse is panicking at all.”
The Braves, whose magic number to clinch was one entering Saturday, could still clinch the division title with a loss by the second-place Nationals against the Marlins on Saturday night. That game at Washington was in doubt because of rain, which caused a long delay.
If not Saturday, the Braves would try again to clinch Sunday, either with a win against the Cubs in their series finale, or a Marlins win Sunday at Washington.
Cubs starter Travis Wood pitched into the eighth inning and gave up one run and four hits, and the recently sputtering Braves offense got one hit the rest of the way in the team’s fourth loss in six games and 10th in 16.
Medlen pitched 7 1/3 innings and allowed six hits and left with a 1-0 lead after giving up a one-out single to Starlin Castro in the eighth. He had allowed two walks and six strikeouts and was in line to extend his winning streak to five starts, but he was removed after 106 pitches.
Downs entered, and things quickly began to unravel. The left-hander gave up a single through the left side by pinch-hitter Donnie Murphy, then Anthony Rizzo’s looping double down the left-field line that tied the score.
“He’s been good, and he’s going to continue to be good,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Downs. “We’ve got to get him those situations and get some people out, which we will.”
Neither of Downs’ pitches that yielded hits appeared to have been poorly located, but that wasn’t any solace for the veteran.
“It’s about results, it’s not about pitch location,” Downs said. “Sometimes you make a good pitch that gets hit, sometimes you make bad pitches and you get them out. It’s just frustrating, the way Meds threw the ball, to come up short like that.”
After facing two batters and giving up two hits, Downs was replaced by Carpenter. Dioner Navarro greeted the right-hander with a single to right field that pushed the lead to 2-1, and the majority of folks in a crowd of 34,612 at Wrigley were ecstatic. Nate Schierholtz followed with an RBI single to push the lead to 3-1.
Until the eighth, the game’s only run scored on an error in the fourth inning when Evan Gattis singled with two on and one out, and right fielder Schierholtz booted the ball. Freddie Freeman scored from second on the play, after drawing a one-out walk and advancing on a Chris Johnson single.
There was a chance to do more damage in the inning when Dan Uggla walked to load the bases with two outs. But B.J. Upton struck out looking, dropping his majors-worst batting average with runners in scoring position to .108 (10-for-93).
The Braves also had two on with none out in the eighth before Johnson grounded into a double play and Gattis flied out.
“(Medlen) threw lights-out and kept us in the game the whole time,” Gattis said. “I just feel like we missed some opportunities.”
Said Gonzalez: “I thought Med was terrific. He really was. But you know what? At the end of the day we only scored one run and had five hits. We had some opportunities to add on some runs but couldn’t get those runs plated. It always seems like when you don’t get those add-on runs, it comes back to haunt you. Whether it’s in the middle innings or late in the games, it always comes back to haunt you.”
With a stiff and steady wind blowing in, there were no balls hit out of the park and only a few made it to the warning track.
“Nothing was going to fly out of this park, and you could afford to be overly aggressive (pitching),” Medlen said. “Guys were going to have to string some hits together to get some runs. We got the one, I felt the whole game that it was on my shoulders, and I wasn’t going to let them score.
“But you get up in the pitch count, and it gets pretty tough for the manager to make the decision.”
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