ATLANTA -- The Braves have squandered a lead in the seventh inning or later during each of this season's first three games. Defensive miscues proved detrimental during the first two contests. But Friday's 7-4 loss to the Cardinals had more to do with bullpen woes, or maybe more appropriately, bullpen decisions.
Starter Matt Wisler rebounded from the bad luck he encountered during the Cardinals' three-run fourth inning and held a one-run lead when he opened the seventh by retiring an eighth consecutive batter. The 23-year-old right-hander had found a groove and had thrown just 87 pitches.
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Still, with his team clinging to a one-run lead, manager Fredi Gonzalez had the option to force the Cardinals' hand once left-handed hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker was announced as a pinch-hitter with one out in the seventh. If he had opted to call his only left-handed reliever -- Eric O'Flaherty -- out of the bullpen, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny would have needed to decide whether to stick with Hazelbaker or burn him in favor of a right-handed bat.
"I could have brought in anybody," Gonzalez said. "We're talking about developing young starting pitchers. At the time, Wisler might have had 87 pitches. You try to get these guys to the next level, and that's the way you do it. We had guys ready just in case [Wisler] got in some kind of jam."
Hazelbaker drilled a game-tying home run off Wisler while O'Flaherty remained in the bullpen. The solo shot was the first of an MLB record three pinch-hit dingers by the Cardinals over the final three frames.
"I only gave up a few hard-hit balls today and that was definitely the big mistake of the day," Wisler said. "I was trying to go in on him. He was hunting a fastball there, being a pinch-hitter. If I execute the pitch, I get an out. I didn't execute it and he took care of it."
The second portion of this pinch-hit trifecta came courtesy of Aledmys Diaz, who greeted O'Flaherty with a leadoff homer in the eighth. Had O'Flaherty been successfully utilized in the seventh, the Braves would not have had another left-handed reliever to use against Cardinals cleanup hitter Matt Adams, who was replaced by Diaz once O'Flaherty entered.
But the seventh offered the Braves a chance to force the Cardinals' hand. By bringing O'Flaherty in to begin the eighth, Gonzalez gave Matheny the option to replace Adams with a right-handed hitter.
"It's a luxury to have two left-handers and we don't have that [second] guy right now," Gonzalez said.