On the other hand, a night like Monday can go a ways toward making a frustrated team feel better about itself. The Atlanta Braves opened a four-game series at Turner Field against an opponent much like themselves — the first-place Milwaukee Brewers have pitched very well but hit less well — and the home team didn’t suffer from the side-by-side comparison. The Braves mustered 15 hits and nine runs and reduced the Brewers to deputizing Lyle Overbay, a 37-year-old first baseman, for his major-league pitching debut.
Further indignity: Overbay was Milwaukee’s most impressive pitcher of the night.
This isn’t to say the Braves cruised. Being the Braves, they invented ways not to score. Chris Johnson hit into a double play to end the first. Mike Minor couldn’t get a bunt down in the second. Jason Heyward was thrown out at the plate in the fourth. Ramiro Pena struck out with two men aboard in the fifth. The Braves left 10 runners through seven innings, and half of their first four runs were unearned. (Milwaukee catcher Martin Maldonado had a horrid game, slinging the ball into left field in the first inning and being called for catcher’s interference against Justin Upton in the sixth.)
As much as the Braves had hit, their lead was only 4-3 in the bottom of the eight, whereupon the Brewers summoned Wei-Chung Wang, who held an ERA of 12.86 and who’s on the roster only because he’s a Rule 5 acquisition and must either be kept on the major-league squad or waived. I’m sure I’ve seen worse innings pitched — I’ve been covering sports for a while now — but none spring to mind.
Wang yielded a leadoff homer to Ryan Doumit, who hadn’t hit a homer as a Brave, on an 83-mph breaking ball that didn’t break. Then he plunked Heyward, who went 3-for-4 and who reached base four times. Then he yielded an opposite-field homer to Justin Upton. Now it was 7-3 and the game was gone. Wang, alas, was not. He would throw 40 pitches and record two outs. (Somehow Freddie Freeman and Johnson whiffed.) Wang’s ERA rose to 17.61.
Credit the Braves for making a lousy pitcher look lousy. (Heaven knows they’ve made enough lousy pitchers look decent.) But it was kind of funny when Overbay entered and, throwing 79-mph something-or-others, needed only six pitches to induce a Doumit popup and end the inning.
An hour or so later, the Braves’ division lead would increase to 1 1/2 games when Washington lost in 15 innings to Cincinnati. It was a game the Nationals should have won. They’d rallied in the ninth against the famous Aroldis Chapman only to watch first Brandon Phillips and then Billy Hamilton make astonishing catches in extra innings to prolong the affair, and just before Hamilton dove to snag Anthony Rendon’s apparent game-winning liner the Nats were undone by their own tactics
Matt Williams is in his first season as Nats manager after replacing Davey Johnson, and the freshman hasn’t been overly impressive. Kevin Frandsen led off the bottom of the 14th with a double down the left-field line. The pitcher’s spot was due. Williams could have used a starting pitcher to pinch-hit and bunt Frandsen to third. Instead he deployed backup catcher Jose Lobaton and let him swing away. Lobaton struck out.
Before Monday’s game, Braves general manager Frank Wren spoke of his team’s missed opportunities to distance itself from Washington, which is working without Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. The Braves were still in first place, Wren conceded, but “it doesn’t feel that way.” Come midnight, it felt more that way.