Braves need execution to match preparation

April 13th, 2016

WASHINGTON -- Managerial decisions are far easier when working with a roster that has more attractable depth than the one Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez currently commandeers. It has also been repeatedly proven that even the wisest of decisions are doomed by poor execution.

Still, these realities did not comfort Gonzalez as he exited Tuesday night's 2-1 loss to the Nationals with no choice but to dwell on the many late-inning decisions that went wrong and consequently kept the Braves winless through this season's first seven games.

"It's not a perfect situation" Gonzalez said. "It's not a perfect bench or a perfect bullpen. So, you try to make up some stuff to get the ball to certain people or put people in certain situations."

Though the Braves are still in the midst of a rebuilding phase, they have had a chance to win six of these first seven games. They've squandered each of the four leads held in the seventh inning or later, and on Tuesday they were unable to take advantage of the six scoreless innings Jhoulys Chacin delivered in an impressive Braves debut.

It is impossible to affirmatively say this latest frustrating result would have been avoided had Chacin's 69-pitch effort not ended with the choice to pull him for a pinch-hitter. Nor do we know what would have happened had Gonzalez utilized Kelly Johnson as a pinch-hitter in the top of the eighth or used his closer Arodys Vizcaino to face Bryce Harper in the bottom of the eighth.

But there was certainly reason to question each of these decisions.

Chacin was prepared to return for the seventh inning until Gordon Beckham delivered a two-out double with the score 0-0 in the top of the seventh inning. Instead of sticking with his starting pitcher, Gonzalez gambled with the depth of his bullpen by pinch-hitting Jace Peterson, who struck out against right-handed reliever Shawn Kelley.

"[Chacin] was pitching some kind of baseball," Gonzalez said. "I think if it's one of those decisions later in the summer, where you've got a winning streak going and you're rolling, you maybe let him hit there. But he was pitching some of the best baseball I've seen this year."

After Hunter Cervenka and Chris Withrow softened the blow of Chacin's exit by keeping the Nationals scoreless in the seventh inning, the Braves loaded the bases with one out in the eighth. Instead of bringing the left-handed-hitting Johnson off the bench to face right-handed reliever Blake Treinen, Gonzalez stuck with Jeff Francoeur, who grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Had the Braves gone with Johnson there, the Nationals likely would have countered with left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero. By appearance, this matchup would have favored Washington, but Johnson ended up drilling an RBI double off Rivero in the top of the ninth.

"I thought about [pinch-hitting Johnson], but Frenchy has been in the game and he's been swinging," Gonzalez said. "He comes up with those big hits in those situations. The matchup wasn't one of those matchups where it was crazy one way or another. I kind of felt good about that."

After the Braves lost Sunday's game to the Cardinals, there was reason to wonder whether Gonzalez should have brought Vizcaino in to protect a one-run lead after Jim Johnson put two on with two out in the eighth inning.

Faced with the same situation, albeit in a scoreless game on Tuesday, Gonzalez kept Vizcaino in the bullpen and summoned Eric O'Flaherty for a lefty-lefty matchup that Harper won with his game-winning two-run double to left field. Before going the opposite way with this decisive shot, Harper had one hit in seven at-bats against O'Flaherty, but four of those at-bats were in 2012, before the Braves southpaw underwent Tommy John surgery.

Gonzalez utilized Vizcaino in the eighth inning on Opening Day because he wanted his best reliever to face the heart of the Nationals order. But he said he would rather only use his closer in a clean situation within the eighth inning.

"We're thinking outside the box," Gonzalez said. "You're thinking about creating stuff and you're thinking about all kinds of different scenarios. You hate to bring anybody in with [multiple guys on base] in those situations. But did I think about [using Vizcaino to face Harper]. Of course, you think about it all of the time. We did it five games ago, but it was a clean inning."