Offense uncharacteristically quiet behind Sale's solid start

April 13th, 2024

MIAMI -- During the middle innings on Saturday afternoon, a brown paper napkin caught the wind and started to blow all around the infield of loanDepot park. With the roof open, it was a perfect -- though very gusty -- afternoon for baseball in Miami.

It was that napkin, strikingly reminiscent of a tumbleweed, that served a perfect depiction of the Braves’ offense in their 5-1 loss to the Marlins.

It wasn’t that Atlanta struggled to get hits, or even extra-base hits (the club had six hits, including two doubles and a triple). The Braves just couldn’t seem to get the RBI knocks they so badly needed.

Entering the sixth inning, Atlanta had put six runners on base, three of whom reached scoring position, with none scoring. Finally, Marcell Ozuna laid down a swinging bunt with one out in the sixth to drive in Austin Riley, who had just hit his first triple of the year. Riley cruised home, and the Braves avoided being shut out for the first time in the regular season since May 12, 2023.

“It was just an off day,” said Matt Olson, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. “I mean, not to discount anything [Marlins starter Max Meyer] did, he threw it well; but yeah just not the best flow for us offensively.”

Meanwhile, the bats may not have been going deep, but starter sure did. On the day the Braves announced that Spencer Strider would be out the remainder of the season after having surgery to repair his UCL, Sale completed seven full innings for the first time this season. The night prior, Max Fried had spun a gem to bounce back from a rough start to the year (an 18.00 ERA in his first two starts).

“It’s nice,” Snitker said. “We’re going to need our starters, they’re going to have to carry the bulk of the load for us to be successful. And those last two starts were really, really good. We’re going to be fine.”

As Atlanta progresses in this season, it will need guys like Sale and Fried to step up and help fill the void left by Strider. Though the box score won’t show it (he was charged with five runs), Sale was surprisingly dominant.

Part of his struggle came down to being unlucky. Sale retired nine straight after allowing an RBI single in the second inning, pitching a clean third and fourth. But he started to falter in the fifth, allowing a two-out single and two walks. Then, after a mound visit, he gave up a bases-clearing double to Bryan De La Cruz, taking the Marlins from a 2-0 lead to a 5-0 lead. The double came on the first pitch of the at-bat; Sale left an 86.5 mph changeup middle-in, and De La Cruz made him pay.

“I’ve just got to get that [pitch] down [in the zone],” Sale said. “Just for whatever reason, it just kind of left me that inning, and that was really the only inning that it kind of got away. Even the following two innings, when I was still kind of steaming, I felt like my command was there and everything was good. I just, for whatever reason at that moment in time, that one inning just kind of fell apart and I wasn’t able to limit damage.”

Sale’s skipper had a slightly less morose take on the starter’s performance.

“I thought he was really, really good,” Snitker said. “He had the two outs in the fifth inning -- got two quick outs, an infield hit, [but] walks were the big thing in that inning, obviously, but he got on such a roll there.”

Sale wanted to keep pitching, and the Braves wanted to show the southpaw they have faith in him, sticking with him through the seventh. He threw 102 pitches (70 strikes) and struck out seven. It’s the first time since May 20, 2023, with Boston, that Sale pitched seven innings.

“If I’m gonna be horse[crap], at least I can save the bullpen a little bit,” Sale said. “There were some good stretches, but, as a whole, still just got to be better.”