NEW YORK -- The Braves’ bid to win a fifth straight National League East title took a hit this weekend. But if the defending World Series champs must be reminded how significantly things could change, they can look back to this same point last year, when they still hadn’t recorded their first winning record of the 2021 season.
A frustration-filled weekend fittingly ended with the Braves being dominated by Jacob deGrom during a 5-2 loss to the Mets on Sunday afternoon at Citi Field. Atlanta’s bid to move toward the top of the division standings evaporated with four losses in this five-game series, including its first three-game losing streak of the season. The finale was highlighted by deGrom carrying a perfect game into the sixth inning.
“We obviously didn’t play well in all phases of the game,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Offensively, I didn’t think we had a lot of consistent at-bats. Defensively, there were a lot of miscues, not just errors, but with free passes and giving up extra bases. The pitching was inefficient with pitch counts and stuff of that nature.”
Swanson’s two-run homer with two outs in the sixth inning ended deGrom’s no-hit bid and possibly prevented some added embarrassment. But the Braves had little to feel good about after leading at the end of just nine of the 45 innings played in this five-game series. They now sit 6 1/2 games behind the Mets.
“It wasn’t a good weekend,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We struggled to win the one game that we did. We’ve got to put it behind us. We’ve got enough games that we can make a run at this thing.”
Each of the final seven games played between the Braves and Mets will occur in Atlanta. That might not create encouragement given how lopsided this weekend’s series was, but a lot can change for the Braves, who are 64-46. Through 110 games last year, they were 55-55 and 2 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East.
“I think I speak for all of us when I say we want to play them again,” Braves starting pitcher Spencer Strider said. “We’ve got seven more games against them, all at Truist [Park]. We’ll have them down there next week [for a four-game series]. We’ll run it back and see what happens.”
While deGrom was recording 12 strikeouts and allowing just one hit over 5 2/3 innings, Strider spent the series finale enduring one of his most frustrating starts of the season. He wasn’t pleased with plate umpire CB Bucknor’s strike zone and was victimized by some tough luck, including Pete Alonso’s two-run double, which bounced off the third-base bag and caromed into left field in the third inning.
Strider allowed six hits and four runs over 2 2/3 innings, his shortest outing since joining Atlanta’s rotation at the end of April. Three of the hits he allowed had an exit velocity of 80.5 mph or lower.
This was par for the course for the Braves. Seventeen of the 52 hits they surrendered in this series had an exit velocity of 85 mph or lower. That being said, light contact can trump no contact. Atlanta struck out in 19 of 30 plate appearances on Sunday and had a 30.5 percent strikeout rate (57 times in 187 plate appearances) during the series.
“When you put the ball in play, good things can happen, especially with two strikes,” Snitker said. “[The Mets] fight balls off and foul balls off. They get your pitch count up, and they’ve got experienced hitters now.”
With their bid to win another division title or a second straight World Series, the Braves will need to get more from their rotation. Strider, Ian Anderson and Jake Odorizzi were all chased before completing five innings in this series. Anderson was given an 8-0 lead through the first two innings of the second game, and the bullpen had to fight to win that contest.
One bright spot was the reemergence of Ronald Acuña Jr., who went 8-for-19 with two doubles and a home run during this series. He also showed confidence in his surgically repaired right knee when he rose above the right-field wall to rob Alonso of a potential homer on Friday.
But if the Braves are going to make yet another great comeback to win a division title, they will need much more than a rejuvenated Acuña to prove they are indeed better than the Mets.
“There’s obviously some frustration with the way the weekend went,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “But I’ve said time and time again that this game is crazy. We’ve got to just continue to play our game and see where we’re at at the end of this thing.”