Late homers not enough for scuffling Braves
Acuna, Camargo smash solo HRs as Freeman, Markakis are held hitless
ATLANTA -- As Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis established MVP-caliber credentials throughout this season's first four-plus months, there was reason to anticipate that they would eventually experience a maddening slump.
Now that they have simultaneously struggled over the past two weeks, it has become even more apparent what they mean to the Braves, who saw their National League East lead dwindle to two games as these two All-Stars went hitless in Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Pirates at SunTrust Park.
"You would just like if they're going to have a spell, they would spread it out a couple weeks apart, instead of [experiencing it] together," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "They've just been so rock solid and consistent all year. But they're going to get it going again. There's no doubt in my mind."
With Freeman still ranking among the top five National League players in fWAR and tied with Markakis for the NL lead in hits, there's reason to anticipate they'll soon escape their respective slumps.
But time is of the essence for the Braves, who are trying to hold off a second-place Phillies team that claimed a 10-inning win over the Cubs at nearly the same time the Braves' one-run loss to the Pirates ended with a Dansby Swanson strikeout.
"Nick and I talk everyday," Freeman said. "We're trying to find it right now. It's not what we wanted, especially for it to go this long. I think we're going on about two weeks now. It's not ideal when both of us are hitting [third and fourth], and we're both going through a little bit of a tough spot right now. Hopefully, we can get out of it tomorrow."
When the Braves won 14 of 18 games from July 29-Aug. 15, Freeman hit .377 with a 1.030 OPS and Markakis batted .352 with a 1.052 OPS. As they have lost nine of their past 15, their All-Star first baseman has hit .196 with a .571 OPS and their All-Star right fielder has batted .175 with a .461 OPS.
"We've played every day," Freeman said. "We had our day off on Monday. So, we're good to go. We just need to start hitting."
As Atlanta's two established veterans have stumbled and Ozzie Albies has extended his second-half struggles from the left side of the plate -- hitting .153 with a .417 OPS against right-handers during this span, the Braves' offense has been led by Ronald Acuna Jr., who homered to begin the sixth inning off Pirates starter Jameson Taillon.
Johan Camargo began the seventh with a game-tying homer off Taillon. But once Brad Brach issued a leadoff walk to Adam Frazier and surrendered Gregory Polanco's decisive RBI single in the eighth, the Braves were unable to preserve the effort provided by Anibal Sanchez, who limited the Pirates to two runs -- one earned -- over 5 1/3 innings.
Ender Inciarte created a prime scoring opportunity when he doubled to begin the fourth inning. But Freeman, who struck out in three of his plate appearances, and Markakis recorded consecutive flyouts ahead of Camargo's threat-ending strikeout.
"Every player, every year passes through a stretch, either good or bad," Sanchez said. "Unfortunately [Freeman and Markakis] are struggling right now. It's not something that's going to last long. Tomorrow is another month. So, everything can turn for the better for those guys."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After Corey Dickerson doubled and scored on Elias Diaz's single in the second, Sanchez retired 12 straight batters before Starling Marte began the sixth with a single. Freeman's errant attempt to force Marte out at second base on Josh Bell's grounder proved costly when David Freese gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead with his RBI single.
The throw was just high enough to pull a stretching Swanson off the bag. The call stood after a replay review showed just how close the play was to resulting in an out.
"If [the throw] is down a little bit, it's a good aggressive play," Snitker said. "Freddie's arm is a weapon, and he's not afraid of it. He's ready to make plays. That's a big play right there. He'll make that play nine out of 10 times."
Acuna led the NL in hits (39) and runs (25) in August and his 11 homers tied Milwaukee's Christian Yelich for the most hit by any Major Leaguer in the month. The Braves' 20-year-old outfielder became the first NL rookie over the last 110 seasons to collect at least 39 hits and 11 homers in a calendar month. The only two American League rookies to reach those marks are Cleveland's Luke Easter (June 1950) and Detroit's Rudy York (Aug. '37).
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Inciarte recorded the Braves' fastest double of the season when he went from home to second in 7.68 seconds to begin the bottom of the fourth.
The Braves' center fielder also enhanced his bid for a third straight Gold Glove Award when he leaped in front of the tall right-center-field wall to snare Freese's long drive and end the top of the first. Per Statcast™, he ran 116 feet to catch the fly ball that had a 52 percent catch probability, resulting in a three-star catch.
HE SAID IT
"They're too young to understand what is going on. I don't know if they know they are in a pennant race right now. They're having fun playing the game and having fun with their friends. It shows on the field. Hopefully, Nick and I can just start joining it." -- Freeman, on the production Acuna, Camargo and some of the team's other young players are providing while entering the heat of a pennant race
Kevin Gausman will look to extend his recent dominance when the Braves resume their three-game series against the Pirates on Saturday at 7:10 p.m. ET at SunTrust Park. Gausman has produced a 1.69 ERA in five starts since being acquired from the Orioles. The right-hander tossed eight scoreless innings in Pittsburgh on Aug. 21. He has not allowed a run over his past 15 innings. The Pirates will counter with Chris Archer, who has a 6.45 ERA in five starts since being acquired from the Rays.