ATLANTA -- While making successful adjustments to their rotation and depleted lineup, the Braves have managed to keep themselves in the thick of a wacky National League East race.
But unless they plug the holes in their leaky bullpen, their bid for a fourth consecutive division title will sink.
Braves manager Brian Snitker was again forced to discuss the extended struggles of his bullpen, which blew yet another late lead in Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Rays at Truist Park. Atlanta won just once during this series despite having a lead entering the seventh inning of each of the three games.
“It sucks to lose,” Braves reliever Luke Jackson said. “We were just talking about that walking in. You don’t get to really enjoy your wins because you’re getting ready to do it again the next day. But those losses sting, especially for a team that is close.”
How close are the Braves? Well, despite their bullpen being charged with 22 of their 47 losses, they are just four games back of the first-place Mets. But they’re also two games below .500, and they stand with the Rangers and Marlins as the only teams that haven’t had a winning record this year.
So why should there be optimism? Well, the rotation has been solid over the past month, and the lineup performed well over this entire weekend. A sweep of the Rays was certainly within reach had the bullpen not blown a two-run lead in Friday’s 7-6, 10-inning loss and a one-run lead in Sunday’s series finale.
“The guys we’re using have helped to get us where we are,” Snitker said. “We’re right there.”
Snitker meant guys like A.J. Minter, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek and Shane Greene, who helped the team immensely last year. But the reality is that those guys are also a significant reason why this team is where it is this year.
After teaming with Martin to blow Friday’s lead, Minter was given a chance to protect a 4-3 lead Sunday. He surrendered Joey Wendle's single, Kevin Kiermaier's double and Austin Meadows’ game-tying sacrifice fly. This prompted the entry of Jackson, who surrendered Francisco Mejía's double before allowing Yandy Díaz's two-run homer.
So within a span of five batters, the Braves went from having a one-run lead to staring at a three-run deficit. This wasn’t anything new for a club that has an MLB-high 10 losses when leading after the sixth inning. Atlanta was 27-0 in such games last year.
“One of the toughest jobs in sports for me is being a Major League Baseball reliever,” Snitker said.
Of course, Snitker’s role becomes more challenging when the number of reliable relief options continues to dwindle like it has in Atlanta. Minter had some scoreless appearances this month, but he has a 6.51 ERA (seven earned runs in 9 2/3 innings) and has allowed opponents to hit .415 (17-for-41) over his past 15 appearances.
“I’ll never apologize for using anyone on my 26-man roster,” Sntiker said. “They are all capable of doing good and helping us. As a manager, when you bring guys in and they get guys out, you’re a genius. When you bring guys in and they don’t get guys out, it’s, ‘Why did you do that?’”
There was more reason to second-guess some of Snitker’s decisions before it became clearer that he simply doesn’t have the reliable relief options he possessed over the past couple of years. Matzek has surrendered a .455 on-base percentage over his past eight appearances, and the once unhittable Martin has allowed opponents to hit .375 over his past 10 appearances.
There just haven’t been any guarantees when that bullpen door has opened. Before allowing Sunday’s decisive homer, Jackson had allowed just one hit over 5 1/3 scoreless innings dating back to June 27.
“I analyze [bullpen plans] before the game,” Snitker said. “A lot of the times, the things I think about at 12:30 [for a 1:20 p.m. ET game], at 3:30 it’s a different feel. You plan going in what you’re going to do and look at different pockets. It’s always easier to figure it out when I’m sitting in my office.”