It was only a week ago that the Atlanta Braves were tickled to be at .500. Today they’ll need a six-game winning streak to get back there. Getting swept by Washington, which has baseball’s best record … well, that can happen. Getting swept by the Phillies, seen in preseason as one of the few teams worse than the Braves … that shouldn’t.
This is how many innings the Braves’ starting pitchers worked over three games in Philadelphia — 20. This is how many earned runs they yielded — seven. That’s an ERA of 3.15, which is very good. But Jim Johnson was touched for the tying and winning runs in two-thirds of an inning Saturday, and Arodys Vizcaino, summoned to hold an eighth-inning tie Sunday, turned it into a three-run deficit in the span of three batters.
Thus did a series that could have been won get lost. Johnson in the 10th on Saturday and Vizcaino in the eighth on Sunday were touched for six hits and five runs while recording two outs. (Both by Johnson, both strikeouts.) Granted, two of the Phillies’ hits against Johnson were of the infield ilk. All three hits against Vizcaino went for extra bases, the latter two clearing the fence.
Here we note: Johnson and Vizcaino are considered the Braves’ best relievers, and the Braves entered the season liking the composition of their bullpen. But the starting rotation, the subject of much winter hand-wringing, has been OK. It has an ERA of 3.80, 12th-best among the 30 MLB clubs. Alas, the bullpen has undercut that — it has an ERA of 5.19, fourth-worst in the majors, and has four blown saves.
The Braves’ rotation has worked 11 quality starts — at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs — in 18 games. The Braves have won six games. That’s math that does itself.
There are other issues. Face of the Franchise Dansby Swanson is hitting .139 with two walks against 19 strikeouts. His OPS is .357; in 38 big-league games last season, it was .803. Ender Inciarte had that improbable run of four homers — he had three all last season — in five games, but he’s 2-for-25 since the Padres left town. Nick Markakis has struck out 18 times in 18 games, which is something Nick Markakis isn’t supposed to do.
But forget all that. Baseball men will tell you that the quickest way to kill a team’s spirit isn’t for guys not to hit; it’s for a bullpen to blow leads. With better bullpen work, the Braves would have won Games 2 and 3 in Philly and would be 8-10, which isn’t great but beats the heck out of 6-12.
With the skewed early schedule (only seven home games in April) and the move to SunTrust Park, this always figured to be a weird April. Still, of the five teams the Braves have played, only Washington is above .500. And here they sit, having won six times in three weeks with a five-game winning streak interspersed. If they plan to be competitive into midsummer — and that was indeed the plan — they’d better get going.