In series opener, Braves fall short vs. Phillies in a game to rue

On a night when the offense resurfaced, the Braves sprung leaks elsewhere and the Phillies’ lead in the National League East expanded by a game.

It’s a long season, there are 76 games still yet to play and the Braves’ chances of catching the Phillies (now leading the Braves by 10 games) seem remote. But, on a night when they could have reduced Philadelphia’s lead to eight games and gotten this critical series off on the right foot, the Braves fumbled it away in an 8-6 loss Friday night at Truist Park.

Long balls from Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna made things interesting for the Braves. But failures by the defense and, improbably, starter Max Fried and reliever Jesse Chavez were complicit as the Braves allowed the Phillies to build on their best record in baseball. The Braves put up six runs against All-Star candidate Aaron Nola and a superior bullpen for naught.

“It’s frustrating, especially when they have a really good approach against a really good pitcher and put up five, six runs, it should be good enough to get it done,” Fried said. “I just wasn’t very good.”

Chavez entered the game in the top of the seventh inning with the Braves down 5-3. It was a situation in which the ageless Chavez, enjoying the best season of his career at the age of 40, has excelled this season – keep his team in the game by holding the opposition scoreless for one or two innings.

“Minimize damage, keep the score where it’s at, not let them get another run on the board,” Chavez said of his mission. “I wasn’t able to do that.”

Disaster ensued, not all of it the fault of Chavez. After giving up a leadoff double to Edmundo Sosa, Chavez induced a ground ball from Whit Merrifield to first baseman Matt Olson that he failed to field cleanly. However, Chavez compounded the error by failing to run to first to take a potential toss from Olson, thinking Olson would field the ball and make the play himself, which enabled Merrifield to reach first.

After a strikeout for the first out, it got worse for the Braves. Merrifield stole second. Then, Johan Rojas hit a dribbler that Chavez fielded, but then he threw wildly to first when his foot slipped, allowing two runs to score for a 7-3 lead and sending Rojas to second.

Then Rojas stole third and this time it was third baseman Austin Riley’s turn to botch a play, failing to catch catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s throw. The ball glanced off Riley’s glove – a rare mistake in an exceptional fielding season for him – and bounced into left. Rojas scored for an 8-3 lead.

Rare boos poured forth from the stands. Chavez gave up one more single, to Bryson Stott (who naturally stole second), before the Phillies were done for the inning.

“You’ve got to stay focused on every single pitch,” Chavez said.

Manager Brian Snitker said he believed the string of errors to be isolated incidents and not the fault of a lack of focus.

“It’s just one of them things,” he said. “You hate it to happen.”

In most Braves games of late, it wouldn’t have mattered. They had managed to score more than three runs just twice in the previous 12 games. They had, improbably, lost 27 consecutive games (soon to be 28) when the opponent scored four runs or more. But the added cushion for the Phillies proved necessary when Ozuna broke out of a mini-slump in the bottom of the eighth by launching a two-out rocket off Phillies reliever José Alvarado for a three-run home run to close the gap to 8-6.

And then, all of the Braves’ miscues mattered. In the fourth, Olson failed to make a play on a grounder from Rojas, making an off-target toss to Fried that allowed Rojas to reach safely. Instead of two outs with none on, the Phillies had one out and one on, opening the door for a three-run inning (punctuated by a two-run home run by Trea Turner) and a 3-0 lead.

In the top of the sixth, with Fried running out of gas, Snitker made the call to keep him in when Turner came to the plate with one on and one out. Trusting his ace, Snitker saw his decision backfire when Turner took Fried deep a second time on a slider that Fried left over the heart of the plate.

“I just have so much confidence in Max, I think,” Snitker said. “Probably that’s what overrides it to a fault, maybe. That I’ve seen him get out of jams and last innings like that, just empty the tank and get the job done so much that’s kind of how much trust I have in him.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker's post-game thoughts on the loss to the Phillies Friday.

It was Fried’s worst start since rebounding from two ugly starts at the start of the season. (He gave up 11 hits and five runs in six innings.) It was the first time that Chavez, who started the game with a 1.51 ERA and whose teammates have been pushing him for an All-Star Game berth, had allowed three runs in an appearance all season. It was the first time that the Braves, who started the day with the fewest errors in the majors with 34, had committed three errors in an inning all season.

All on a night when the offense performed in a way not often seen since the beginning of May.

Yes, the offense offered some hope. And the Braves used up some of the Phillies’ bullpen. And the defense likely won’t play that poorly again anytime soon. But it was still a missed opportunity, and for a team now 10 games back of the Phillies, those chances are best not squandered.