'Pen falters as 'great comeback' falls short

May 17th, 2021

Instead of seeing his team even its record through 40 games, Braves manager Brian Snitker endured another one-run loss and then fielded questions about how his team’s comeback influenced his bullpen decisions.  

“It’s one game, but we’ve got 150 left or whatever it is,” Snitker said. “So you need every one of those guys down there.”  

With essentially a quarter of the season complete, the Braves have plenty more of those marathons to navigate. So there will be a need to continue pacing the top relievers. But that certainly didn’t lessen the frustration felt on Sunday, when a seven-run seventh went to waste in a 10-9 loss to the Brewers at American Family Field.

“We had guys down,” Snitker said. “Everybody in the bullpen has to share [the] load, because we can’t keep using the core group of guys and have them [remain healthy and effective].”   

Most of the questions about the bullpen centered around the usage of Jesse Biddle and Josh Tomlin, who are seldom used in high-leverage situations. Biddle entered with the Braves down 5-0 in the fifth. The attempt to get one more inning out of him backfired when he threw 13 consecutive balls, issued three walks and uncorked two wild pitches during Milwaukee’s three-run sixth.    

Tomlin began warming up as the Braves trailed 8-0. When the decision was made for him to go ahead and pitch even after the deficit had been cut to one run in the seventh, the assumption was that there hadn’t been enough time to get somebody warmed up.   

The Braves scored each of their seven runs in the seventh within a span of five pitches that extended from Ender Inciarte’s two-run single to Freddie Freeman’s grand slam. But when asked if the sudden change prevented him from getting somebody else to begin the bottom of the seventh, Snitker said, “[Tomlin] was the guy we had today for the seventh inning.”

Tomlin has been an invaluable bullpen piece over the past few years. A little more than a week ago, he saved the Braves by providing 4 1/3 innings after Charlie Morton was chased by the Phillies in the first. But he’s far from the top option in a one-run game in the seventh.   

So why was he used?   

Snitker didn’t specify which relievers were unavailable as his team attempted to complete a three-game sweep against a Brewers team that had averaged 2.6 runs while losing 10 of their previous 13 games.   

But it seems likely that closer Will Smith was unavailable after pitching for the third time in four days on Sunday night. To make matters worse, he would have never pitched on Friday had Tomlin not allowed a pair of solo homers after entering with a five-run lead in the ninth.

The Braves may also have been without Chris Martin, who pitched for the second time in three days on Saturday night. There’s certainly a need to be cautious with Martin, who recently spent a little more than a month on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. The lanky pitcher has also dealt with some back issues that have created reason to be cautious about how frequently he’s used in a day game following an appearance in a night game.   

Given Jacob Webb’s history with elbow issues, the Braves may have also been reluctant to use him after he pitched on both Thursday and Friday.   

But even if it was just Smith and Martin who were unavailable, Tyler Matzek or A.J. Minter would have been lined up to serve as the closer. They would have joined Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb as the top high-leverage options.  

Jackson recorded two strikeouts in a perfect eighth. But by then, the damage had already been done. Newcomb, who entered after Tomlin, hit Omar Narváez with a pitch and surrendered a two-run single to Lorenzo Cain, which proved to be decisive.  

“The guys that are down there, they have to do their job,” Snitker said. “If they don’t, it kind of hurts a comeback like this.”   

The Braves are now 7-7 in one-run games, meaning they have one more loss in these games than they did over the 16 such games they had during last year’s 60-game season. Many of these close losses have been a result of the inconsistent bullpen.

The tone of this latest setback was set by Huascar Ynoa, who was brought down to earth while allowing nine hits and five runs over just 4 1/3 innings. The young hurler had allowed four hits or fewer and two runs or fewer in six of his previous seven starts.   

“It was a great comeback,” Snitker said. “The guys kept roaring back. We don’t second guess anything we did today.”