Bullpen woes, baserunning error sink Braves

June 17th, 2021

ATLANTA -- There might be time for the Braves to be better than they have been. But as their struggles mount and they repeatedly taste late-inning frustrations, they have to face the fact they are who they have been for this season’s first 11 weeks.

Attempts to remain optimistic became even more challenging as the Braves squandered another late lead in a 10-8 loss to the Red Sox on Wednesday night. Freddie Freeman provided a spark with a go-ahead home run and A.J. Minter soured the mood when he surrendered Christian Arroyo’s game-winning grand slam.

“You got to look at it as you got to be careful with us because we’re getting punched in the face night after night,” Minter said. “We’re going to keep getting better every single day. That’s a team you’ve got to look out for.”

It’s been harder for the frontrunners to see the fading Braves, who are a season-high five games under .500 and 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets. The bullpen once again played a large role in this loss. But much of manager Brian Snitker’s postgame frustration was aimed at Ronald Acuña Jr., who got thrown out attempting to advance to third base on a one-out RBI double in the ninth.

“You can’t do stupid things like that and expect to win games,” Snitker said. “We have in the tying run at the plate in the MVP (Freddie Freeman) and you get thrown out by 10 feet. You can’t do that and expect to win.”

Acuña’s double brought the Braves within one run. But instead of coming to the plate as the tying run with one out, Freeman strolled to the plate with two outs and promptly struck out. The baserunning blunder wasn’t the only reason the Braves lost for the sixth time in their past seven games.

But it did squelch their last bit of hope in this latest frustrating loss.

“Honestly, I was trying to make an aggressive play,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “That was my mentality. But looking back on it now, that was my bad. I made a mistake. I obviously should have given the hitter behind me a chance to drive in a run.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Braves as they entered this year looking to build on last year’s run to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The bullpen woes that have followed them throughout the season were supposed to disappear with the arrival of Shane Greene, who signed a one-year deal on May 9.

But Greene hasn’t yet proven to be the remedy for a bullpen that welcomed him back last week.

Asked to protect the one-run lead gained via Freeman’s opposite-field homer in the sixth, Greene surrendered Xander Bogaerts’ leadoff double and then walked two of the next three batters he faced. It looked like the veteran reliever might escape unscathed. He struck out Bobby Dalbec and was set to face pinch-hitter Danny Santana, who is hitting .104 with a .465 OPS.

But when Snitker opted to remove Greene, the Red Sox pulled Santana back to the dugout. This set the stage for Minter to face Arroyo, who fell behind 0-2 before drilling a cutter a projected 467 feet over the left-center-field wall.

“You get into the last third of a one-run game and you start walking guys, that’s not going to end well,” Snitker said.

Arroyo’s slam served as the latest gut punch endured by the Braves, who have now lost seven of the 33 games they have led at the end of the sixth inning. They went 27-0 in such games last year and 76-6 in 2019. So, they’ve lost more of these games this year than they did the past two years combined.

Minter became a key piece of last year’s rock solid bullpen and started this year in encouraging fashion. But he has now allowed five extra-base hits within the past 25 batters he’s faced. His struggles have coincided with those of Chris Martin, who was nearly unhittable before allowing opponents to go 6-for-12 against him within his past three appearances. One of the hits he allowed was Alex Verdugo’s game-winning homer in Tuesday’s series opener against the Red Sox.

“You gotta love this game, baseball,” Minter said. “It will break your heart one night, and you can be at the top of the world the next day. We get the opportunity to come out and play a game that we love. There's not one person on this team that enjoys losing, including myself. I think I hate losing more than I love to win.”