ATLANTA -- If Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos needed any more motivation to improve his bullpen, he received it during a disappointing homestand which concluded with Sam Freeman and Dan Winkler combining to squander a two-run seventh-inning lead in Wednesday afternoon's 6-5 loss to the Reds at SunTrust Park.
"We have the right people down there," manager Brian Snitker said. "I'm not concerned about the individuals. It's more the workload."
One of Snitker's responsibilities is to keep up the morale of his club, which still has a three-game division lead despite dropping consecutive three-game series against the Orioles and Reds. So he certainly is not going to call out individuals or lobby for changes. But Snitker's bid to remain in first place in the National League East will be heavily influenced by what happens with his bullpen, which has tallied six blown saves while producing a 5.10 ERA in June.
"Any time things go haywire and you're extending guys beyond what they're accustomed to, that's a concern in terms of personnel," Snitker said. "I think it will help if we can get back to starters covering innings and doing what they have been doing all year. They're going through a little rut, too."
Sean Newcomb certainly wasn't at his best, but he positioned the Braves for a potential win as he limited the Reds to three runs while totaling a career-high 111 pitches in six innings. The young southpaw is the only Atlanta starter to complete at least six innings within the past eight games, but he has received a no-decision in the two starts within this span.
Having gained a lead with the two-out flurry produced against Luis Castillo during a four-run fourth, the Braves handed a 5-3 lead to Freeman in the seventh inning and then watched it quickly evaporate. The veteran lefty sandwiched a pair of strikeouts between a pair of walks and then exited after Scooter Gennett delivered an RBI single.
Adam Duvall then produced a go-ahead two-run single against Winkler, who has allowed 12 hits and seven earned runs over his past 7 2/3 innings (eight appearances). The rookie right-hander had allowed 10 hits and two earned runs over the 24 1/3 innings completed before this stretch.
"For three months, we've had a good [bullpen mix]," Snitker said. "It got out of whack with the games we've had to play and the extra innings and things like that. It's going to happen. The 'pen and the starting pitching is no different than the offense when it has its lulls."
Atlanta's bullpen allowed 18 earned runs while being forced to cover 29 2/3 innings during this six-game homestand, and it was challenged by the extra-inning games and the premature exits of some starting pitchers. Closer Arodys Vizcaino was not available, but he should return when he's eligible to be activated from the disabled list on Sunday. The Braves may also recall Evan Phillips soon, who will not be eligible to return to the Majors until July 6 unless he is promoted to replace a player who is placed on the disabled list.
But there are certainly concerns about Winkler and Freeman, the latter of which has allowed at least two runs in three of his past six appearances. Shane Carle is trending in the wrong direction in his rookie season and the 39-year-old Peter Moylan has allowed opponents to produce a .355 on-base percentage as he's allowed seven earned runs over his past seven innings.
Anthopoulos will scour the trade market for upgrades and possibly identify which of his better pitching prospects might make a temporary transition to a relief role. But it does seem apparent that changes need to be made for Atlanta to remain in first place.
"It's just one of those rough stretches you get during the season," Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "It's no different than any other team. Every team goes through it where there is a stretch where the bullpen ends up throwing a lot of innings. You've just got to deal with it and keep trucking along."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After the Braves put two on with none out in the fifth, Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman called upon lefty reliever Kyle Crockett, who struck out Freddie Freeman on three pitches and then intentionally walked Nick Markakis to load the bases. Riggleman then signaled for Jackson Stephens, who limited the damage to one unearned run when third baseman Eugenio Suarez booted Charlie Culberson's two-out grounder. Stephens ended the threat by striking out Johan Camargo.
"We're getting guys on," Snitker said. "We're having a hard time getting the big hit right now. That happens to every ballclub out there. Even the ones that win a whole lot of games go through stretches like that."
Castillo was perfect through 3 2/3 innings, but he retired just one of the final nine batters he faced. Suzuki, Culberson, Camargo and Dansby Swanson recorded four consecutive two-out RBI singles in the fourth for the Braves, who have tallied an MLB-high 171 runs with two outs.
Snitker opted to rest second baseman Ozzie Albies, who was struck in the left foot with a pitch during Tuesday night's game. He also opted to remove Ender Inciarte from Wednesday's game when the Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder felt a twinge in his right oblique muscle.
"He felt something in the oblique," Snitker said. "It was kind of a shadow type thing where he just mentioned it, and as soon as he mentioned it, I'm not going to take any chances, because I don't want him taking a swing. I think he could have played, but it's just one of those things that you just don't want to take a chance with. All day today and tomorrow, he'll get treatment, and he should be fine."
The Braves are hopeful Albies and Inciarte will both be available to play during Friday's series opener in St. Louis.
HE SAID IT
"This is really our first time to experience this. The guys will keep playing. They did today. They got us right back into this ballgame against a guy who was strapping us. We had two out and nobody on. Then all of a sudden, we're winning the game." -- Snitker
Ronald Acuna Jr. is set to make his return to the Braves' lineup when the club travels to St. Louis to face the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Friday at 8:15 p.m. ET. Acuna has been on the disabled list since May 28 with a mild ACL sprain in his left knee and a lower back contusion. The left fielder has been rehabbing with Triple-A Gwinnett since June 22. Julio Teheran is set to make the start for Atlanta, while St. Louis will counter with Miles Mikolas.