Another day brings another Braves’ backward step

Former Atlanta Braves closer Mark Melancon finishes off the win for the Padres in the 7th inning to secure the 3-2 victory.   “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Former Atlanta Braves closer Mark Melancon finishes off the win for the Padres in the 7th inning to secure the 3-2 victory. “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Six times these Braves have come within a game of nosing above .500. Six times they’ve lost their next game. Having beaten San Diego 2-1 on Tuesday, the Braves awoke Wednesday at 46-47. The day itself – and part of the night – would bring a doubleheader, meaning that if the Braves could beat the Padres twice more, they’d be above .500 for the first time in 2021, in which case the ol’ AJC might have run a special edition to commemorate the moment.

Rest easy, printers. You won’t have to worry about stopping those presses for at least a few more days. Or should that be a few more months?

In Wednesday’s opener, the Braves showed why a team that came within a game of the World Series in October has managed to remain a non-winning entity from opening day 2021 through Game No. 94 – and will stay there at least through games No. 95 and 96. With half their expected everyday eight gone, they don’t hit as much, which is understandable. Far more frustrating is the bullpen, or what’s left of it.

In Wednesday’s nightcap ... well, it began at 5:20 p.m. It hasn’t ended yet. The Padres led 5-4 after 4-1/2 innings, when rain arrived. After a stoppage, the Braves announced the game would resume around 8 p.m. Resumption never came. At 10:30, it was announced that the game had been suspended. It’s unclear when – or if – the game will be played to its conclusion. The Padres aren’t scheduled to visit again. The Braves, however, will play a September series in San Diego.

Much, much earlier, Braves rookie Kyle Muller had cast the day’s first pitch at 12:21 p.m. He would need another 86 to make it through four innings. Here’s the thing, though. Muller at something approaching his worst was better than what the Braves had in reserve.

The Padres didn’t score until the fourth, and they needed Muller to whip a pitch past catcher Kevan Smith to put Jurickson Profar in position to score the game’s first run on a sacrifice fly. “I owe Kevan a couple of steaks and a couple of drinks,” Muller said. “I had terrible command.”

Effectively wild,” was how manager Brian Snitker characterized Muller’s 87 pitches, and both parts were true. Muller wasn’t throwing the ball where he expected, but the Padres weren’t knocking it over the fence, either. (Profar came close, his drive to right-center hitting the top of the wall.)

Snitker: “When it takes (almost) 90 pitches to get through four innings, that’s probably going to be the end of the line.”

It was. Down 1-0 after four innings, the Braves turned to Shane Greene in the fifth. He began by striking out Chris Paddack, the Padres’ pitcher. Matters deteriorated. Tommy Pham walked. Fernando Tatis ripped a sinker that didn’t sink into the seats in left-center. (It was his 29th home run of the season, so we shouldn’t have been surprised.) The Braves trailed 3-0 more than halfway through.

Greene entered with an ERA of 9.75. He exited with an ERA of 10.38. Snitker’s postgame defense of Greene boiled down to this: “He was pretty good a couple of a days ago.”

As for the Braves’ hitters: They managed three singles, no walks and no runs over five innings against Paddack, whose ERA in his past five appearances was 10.31. You wouldn’t expect to lose a 3-2 game to such a pitcher, but these Braves keep surprising us.

Muller on his performance: “In terms of damage control, I was pleased. It could have gotten out of control a few times. … I don’t want to say that’s encouraging, but it kind of is.”

Kind of, yes. But that this game, like others, didn’t get out of control until the first reliever reported for duty. Adding to this grim tableau was the seventh-inning appearance – with doubleheaders, the seventh is the new ninth – of former closer Mark Melancon, whom the Braves allowed to leave as a free agent and whose 28 saves lead the majors.

Melancon needed nine pitches to end the game – strikeout, strikeout, grounder to second. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he made it look easy. The Braves have spent the spring and a chunk of the summer making relief pitching look hard. Too hard.

Here’s a detail you might have missed: The Braves’ rotation – now without Ian Anderson, Huascar Ynoa and Mike Soroka – has gotten pretty good. As of May 31, these starters ranked 16th among MLB clubs in ERA, 14th in strikeouts and 21st in slugging percentage against. From June 1 through Wednesday morning, this rotation ranked ninth in ERA, eighth in strikeouts and first in opponents’ slugging percentage.

Alas, that uptick hasn’t had much impact in the standings. As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Braves were again 4-1/2 games behind the Mets. Later they’d fly to Philadelphia for four games against the second-place Phillies, to be followed by a five-game set at Citi Field. Also: Next week brings the trade deadline.

This season is getting down to cases, as they say. After 94 games, the Braves have made a fairly compelling case that this isn’t their year.

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