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ANTA -- For the first 42 games of the 2012 season, it appeared that the Atlanta Braves were far too good to go anywhere near an extended losing streak.
After the last seven games, however, the Braves seem a little less untouchable. It is too early in the season to declare a crisis, and it would be short-sighted to dismiss a team with this much ability on the basis of one bad week. But it is not too early to notice where room for improvement is required.
With a 7-2 loss to the Washington Nationals Sunday night, the Braves were swept in their second straight series and dropped their seventh straight game. They have run into two teams that were playing very well and they have had injuries and illnesses causing further difficulties. But no excuse is a good excuse in a case such as this.
The Braves' difficulties over the last seven games have spanned the spectrum of possible shortcomings. They scored only eight runs in the four losses in Cincinnati. That is even worse than it sounds because Great American Ball Park is a hitters' paradise.
The Braves' starting pitching was atypically shaky in the first two losses to Washington. Sunday night, their defense let down at critical junctures, their bullpen was ineffective at another pivotal moment and their offense was just north of invisible.
Brandon Beachy, who has been the Braves' most consistent starter this season, was off his best form, but still deserved a better fate Sunday night. He gave up one earned run in five-plus innings. An error by shortstop Tyler Pastornicky led to two unearned runs in the fourth. Pastornicky attempted a behind-the-back flip for a force at second, but Dan Uggla could not hold the flip. Uggla did the right thing after the game, saying of the play: "That's totally on me."
Beachy departed the game after allowing a hit-by-pitch in the sixth. He was replaced by Livan Hernandez. Hernandez was not the answer, unless the question was: "How are the Nationals going to score four runs this inning?"
The Braves, meanwhile, could do next to nothing with Washington starter Gio Gonzalez. They reached him for a grand total of one hit in seven innings. They scored two runs off him only because they scratched, clawed, bunted and small-balled their way around the bases. It was a commendable effort, but it was overcome by subsequent events.
Seven games ago, the Braves were in first place in the extremely difficult NL East. At the close of business Sunday night they were in fourth. This is evidence not only that the Braves had a bad week, but that this division is extraordinarily balanced. Where will the Braves have to improve to get back into a postseason position?
Forty percent of the Braves' current starting rotation is in a developmental stage, with Mike Minor, 24, and Randall Delgado, 22. Nobody doubts the talent of either, but for a contending team, their work will have to become more consistent.
"Looking at it objectively -- which I don't because I always look at it like we're really, really good -- I think our pitching is good," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But we've got young guys -- Minor, Delgado -- and every once in a while we're going to see a blip on the radar, like we experienced last year with Beachy. And we're just going to have to get them through it.
"And then we're going to see them rattle off two or three good starts and you're going to go, 'Wow!' Then out of nowhere you're going to see a start where you go, 'Holy cow, what just happened?'" Gonzalez said. "It's a big difference between guys who have 18 or 20 [Major League] starts, versus guys who have a couple hundred starts. But the pitching could carry us. And I think at the end of the year, I would like us to be known for our pitching. But there's going to be some growing pains in our rotation."
The Braves will be better when they get healthier. Chipper Jones is on the disabled list after a rocket grounder left him with a severe bruise just above his left ankle. Brian McCann has been down with a virus. Daivd Ross tweaked a groin muscle. Freddie Freeman has a dry-eye problem related to contact-lens wear. The list goes on, but these cannot be excuses because the Nats have 10 players on the DL, including some key personnel.
"There are no excuses," Gonzalez said. "We're complaining about guys having the flu, and guys who can't produce tears. But then you look at their injury report and they've got [Michael] Morse with a shoulder [injury], [Jayson] Werth with a broken wrist, you got the catcher [Wilson Ramos] with a [torn] ACL, done for the year. So you feel like we're actually pretty lucky."
The other thing is, without taking anything away from the value of Jones, a sure-thing future Hall of Famer, this club has to figure out a way to win without him. The Braves are 19-5 with Jones in the starting lineup, but 7-18 without him in the lineup. This is obviously a problem now, with Jones on the DL, but it will be something more than that in the future, since he is retiring at the end of this season.
"It's frustrating to watch," Jones said Sunday. "But somebody's got to step it up. They've got 162 games to look forward to next year. Somebody's got to step up. I'd like for us to be equally good both ways."
This is not a team in deep trouble, despite the losing streak. But it's also not a team that is an invulnerable lock, either.