Swanson’s walk-off gives Braves breathing room to work out issues

041521 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson hits a walk off single to beat the Miami Marlins 7-6 during the ninth inning of a MLB baseball game on Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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041521 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson hits a walk off single to beat the Miami Marlins 7-6 during the ninth inning of a MLB baseball game on Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There are no wrong answers to the question of what’s the main problem for the Braves because so much has gone wrong. Pick any of them, and you might be right.

It’s pitching, both starters and relievers. It’s also the lineup. It’s the defense, especially in left field. It’s the annoying extra-inning rules and worthless replay reviews. It’s bad luck, injuries and otherwise.

Catch any random Braves game, and you’ll see one of those issues crop up. Nearly all of them did Thursday afternoon at Truist Park. Then, finally, something went right for the Braves.

Dansby Swanson’s single in the ninth inning sent the Braves to a 7-6 victory over the Marlins. The Braves were looking at a 4-9 mark and bad vibes from another squandered game. Instead, they left for a five-game trip with a 5-8 record and feeling good after their first walk-off victory of the season.

“Coming back today, we kind of looked more like ourselves,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We had a little more life.”

The way things have gone for the Braves, I figured that when Ozzie Albies walked with the bases loaded to tie the score, it was just setting up another extra-innings loss. Swanson quickly took that scenario off the table by poking Dylan Floro’s first pitch to left field and scoring Ronald Acuna. The Braves avoided a sweep and ended their losing streak at four games.

One way to look at the Braves’ struggles is that they have so many problems there isn’t an easy fix. I’d buy that if it were June. I’m not ready to concede it in April. The Braves have played 8% of their schedule. They have three losses in extra innings, which involve a lot of randomness because they begin with a runner at second base.

Braves lineup regulars have never finished a season with production as bad as what they’ve managed so far. The Braves still entered Thursday ranked seventh among National League teams in runs scored per game. Acuna has carried the lineup. But, as always, Freddie Freeman gets on base even when he’s not hitting. He had a 10-pitch walk against Floro before Albies walked to tie the score.

And put Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval alongside Acuna on the list of things that have gone right. His pinch-hit, three-run homer in the sixth inning gave the Braves a two-run lead. That’s his third pinch-hit homer this season. All either tied the score or put the Braves ahead.

According to research by MLB’s Sarah Langs, Sandoval has hit the most pinch hit homers in a calendar month in Braves history. The MLB record for pinch-hit homers in a month is four, set by Erubiel Durazo in April 2001. The Braves have 13 more games scheduled in April.

The Braves would be in deeper trouble without Sandoval’s punch off the bench. His good work still wasn’t enough to secure the win Thursday. After his homer put them up 5-3, Braves reliever Nate Jones immediately gave back half that advantage by allowing a homer to Starling Marte. Lefty A.J. Minter squandered the rest in the ninth.

Adam Duvall continued to torment his old teammates with a pinch-hit, run-scoring double off Minter to tie the score. Garrett Cooper put Miami ahead with an RBI single. Ender Inciarte began the Braves’ comeback with a single, and Acuna followed with another. Then came walks by Freeman and Albies, and Swanson’s game-winning hit.

The Braves already had gotten the requisite home run from Acuna. His two-run shot in the fifth was his seventh in 13 games. Acuna’s ninth-inning single was his 23rd hit in 52 at-bats. But the Braves didn’t get much at all from batters Nos. 2-8: Swanson had three hits, the other six had none.

“We haven’t hit like we are going to,” Snitker said. “We are going to hit. We are going to be a force offensively.”

It’s likely the Braves will have a harder time solving their pitching issues. The injured list includes their two best starters (Max Fried and Mike Soroka) and one good reliever (Chris Martin). The depth isn’t holding up.

Right-hander Ian Anderson held the Marlins to three runs, but pitched only five innings because he was so inefficient (98 pitches, four walks). Anderson couldn’t do much about Jon Berti getting a double out of weak contact on the second. The ball skipped down the first-base line and scored Jazz Chisholm, who’d hit a one-out double.

Berti scored on No. 8 hitter Chad Wallach’s shallow single to left fielder Marcell Ozuna. Base runners in scoring position are going home on nearly any ball to Ozuna. He doesn’t have the arm to make them regret it. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if Ozuna were hitting. He has 19 strikeouts and eight hits.

The lack of depth in the Braves’ bullpen, especially with right-handers, hurt them again. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day are gone from last season’s ‘pen. Melancon and O’Day signed relatively modest deals with the Padres and Yankees, respectively. Greene remains a free agent.

The victory gave the Braves some breathing room to work out their problems in the bullpen and elsewhere. They have three games at the Cubs this weekend, an off-day, then two at the Yankees. Chicago ranks near the bottom of MLB in runs scored. The Braves won’t see the two best Yankees starters, Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery.

Wild swings in a small sample of games means there’s a chance the Braves will return home riding high. Sandoval said he encouraged his teammates to take the long view. He has the most MLB service time of any of them and won three World Series rings with the Giants.

“Keep fighting,” Sandoval said. “It’s early in the season. It’s part of the game. You try to win games, and sometimes it (doesn’t) go your way. You have to keep everything up and try to do the best you can every day.”

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