WASHINGTON -- Mike Foltynewicz righted himself after a rough first inning and Atlanta's offense did its part to keep things close against Max Scherzer. But when Sam Freeman was deemed the best option to face Bryce Harper in a one-run game, it was once again apparent the Braves need to
WASHINGTON -- Mike Foltynewicz righted himself after a rough first inning and Atlanta's offense did its part to keep things close against Max Scherzer. But when Sam Freeman was deemed the best option to face Bryce Harper in a one-run game, it was once again apparent the Braves need to upgrade their bullpen before next week's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Harper's sixth-inning RBI single off Freeman did not serve as the decisive blow in Sunday's twice-delayed 6-2 loss to the Nationals at Nationals Park. But the decision to use a lefty who has retired just half of the left-handed batters he's faced dating back to May 30 highlighted the lack of depth in the Braves' bullpen.
"Every time we lose, there's always going to be someone saying you need this, this and this," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "But when you win, you don't hear anything. When you get to the last 50-60 games of the year, they're going to pinpoint something you need. What we need to do here is put out that noise and try to go out there and play a clean ballgame."
After splitting this two-game series against the Nationals, the Braves sit one game behind the Phillies in the National League East. They have exceeded expectations, but to build on the first four months and remain legit contenders, Atlanta must address a bullpen that has posted a 4.28 ERA this season and a 5.14 ERA since the start of June.
It was easy to criticize manager Brian Snitker's decision to call upon Freeman after Foltynewicz's day ended with him surrendering consecutive two-strike, two-out singles. There was even more reason to second guess after Harper laced his single to right off Freeman, who has allowed nine hits and issued six walks within the past 30 left-handed hitters he's faced.
Left-hander Jesse Biddle seemingly would have been a better option in a one-run game, especially with the chance to throw multiple innings once Ryan Flaherty replaced Johan Camargo as part of a double switch when Freeman came in. But the one-hour, 38-minute rain delay between the sixth and seventh innings would have erased the possibility of Biddle pitching the seventh.
Snitker's other option was Dan Winkler, who surrendered an eighth-inning homer to Harper and exited the game having allowed left-handers to hit .370; he's posted a 6.89 ERA over his past 17 appearances. Shane Carle has also been far less reliable than he was through the season's first six weeks. Consequently, with Arodys Vizcaino on the disabled list, the reliable options consist of Biddle and closer A.J. Minter.
"They're going to have ruts," Snitker said. "We've talked about that. It's going to happen. They're rested. We're in for a long haul here. This thing is going to get really, really [laborious] soon. We need guys to be efficient and we need guys to throw strikes. I've got all the confidence in those guys because I've seen them do it before and they'll do it again."
As the Braves prepare to play on 33 of the next 35 days, they'll need continued consistency from Foltynewicz, who allowed three first-inning runs and then kept the Nationals off the board until the sixth. His early struggles followed a one-hour, 55-minute rain delay before the start of the game.
Ender Inciarte halted his recent struggles with a three-hit game and Dansby Swanson drove in a couple runs against Scherzer, who needed 80 pitches to get through the first four innings, but still surrendered just two runs over six frames.
The Braves were in position to win a game that would have further muddied the third-place Nationals' plans before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. But their hopes of erasing an early deficit were dashed by what has been Atlanta's most significant issue.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Nats' defense thwarts Braves' rallies: Inciarte led off the seventh with a single before Swanson nearly erased the Braves' two-run deficit with a long drive that Michael A. Taylor grabbed near the top of the center-field wall.
Freeman also encountered some tough luck when he drilled a 109.6-mph liner to right field and saw Adam Eaton run it down just before the right-field warning track. Eaton made a catch on a ball that had a 99 percent hit probability, per Statcast™.
"That's the name of the game sometimes," Freeman said. "It's a game of inches. They caught their inches today. We hit the ball when we needed to hit the ball and they just made the plays."
Ronald Acuna Jr. has proven to be one of the game's fastest players, but he got caught admiring his third-inning drive off the center-field wall a little too long. The ball caromed directly to Harper, who made a strong throw to deny the rookie outfielder's bid to at least get a double out of his near-homer.
"He just got caught up watching the ball," Snitker said. "That just can't happen. With a guy who can run like that, it's a double 100 times out of 100. I told him, 'You can't make mental lapses like that.' Against a guy like Scherzer, you can't make mistakes. It's hard enough beating a guy like that."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Snitker's frustration with the replay system was enhanced after Charlie Culberson immediately signaled for a challenge after Brian O'Nora called him out attempting to steal second base with two outs in the fifth. Replays seemed to show clear and convincing evidence Culberson touched the bag ahead of Trea Turner's tag. But the call stood because the replay official could not definitively determine that Culberson maintained contact with the bag.
"The call was that they called him out on the tag," Snitker said. "[O'Nora] didn't wait and say he was out because he came off the base. The call that was made was that the throw beat him. On replay, it was clear he beat that throw. He never said he came off. So, I don't get how. That's not the call. They're not overturning the call that was made on the field."
Sean Newcomb will take the mound when the Braves open a two-game series against the Marlins on Monday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Newcomb had been scheduled to face the Nationals, but a rainout created this opportunity for him to face Miami, which has produced the second-worst OPS against left-handed pitchers. The Marlins will counter with Jose Urena, who has a 3.48 ERA in seven starts against Atlanta since the start of 2017.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.