As Braves manager Brian Snitker has been forced to go to the bullpen early and often over the past two nights, he could at least take solace in the fact that his team will finally get an off-day on Thursday.
Touki Toussaint’s attempt to build off of last week’s encouraging start quickly evaporated in a 9-6 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. Braves starters have now worked fewer than five innings each of the past two nights, three of the past four games and 11 times within this season’s first 19 games.
“[The off-day] is going to come at the perfect time,” Snitker said. “I honestly feel like tomorrow we’re in good shape.”
Somehow, the Braves will still be in good shape when they awake on Wednesday tied for the second-most wins (11) in the National League. This success has come despite the fact that their bullpen (79 2/3 innings) has totaled just 2 2/3 innings fewer than the starting staff (82 1/3 IP).
The bullpen has produced a 3.05 ERA while proving to be one of the team’s strengths. It also should be noted that expanded rosters have helped Snitker protect his relievers. Shane Greene and A.J. Minter are the only two relievers who have made as many as seven appearances.
“As much as we’ve used [the bullpen], I feel good about where [the relievers] all are,” Snitker said. “We’ve done a good job of not over-taxing anybody. I think one of the reasons they’ve been throwing so well is the way they’ve been used. We haven’t had to beat up anybody.”
But there’s reason to question whether this success is sustainable, even over the course of a shortened season.
It’s been a game of survival as the Braves have seen injuries and demotions remove all but Max Fried from the rotation that was projected at the start of Summer Camp. Sean Newcomb and Toussaint seemed to make progress last week after ace Mike Soroka was lost for the season. But that duo combined to allow 13 earned runs over 5 1/3 innings the past two nights.
In fairness, a majority of that damage was incurred by Newcomb, who was optioned to the alternate training site to be reunited with Mike Foltynewicz, who was designated for assignment after just one start. Toussaint allowed the Yankees five earned runs and recorded three strikeouts over four innings.
This was far different than the energizing nine-strikeout performance Toussaint produced against the Blue Jays last week. But as he surrendered a three-run homer to Luke Voit in the first inning and was foiled by right fielder Marcell Ozuna’s limited range during a three-run third, the 24-year-old right-hander provided a reminder that he is just nine starts into his still-blossoming career.
Voit’s homer came on a slider, a pitch Toussaint added to his repertoire this winter. As time passes, he may find consistent success with that breaking ball, which could enhance the value of his curveball. But there isn’t much room for error as he attempts to prove himself within this fractured rotation.
“I’m anxious to watch [the video] when I get back to the room, because I thought he threw the ball pretty well,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. “He hung that one early that got us down three [out of the gate]. But they did a great job of fouling well-located pitches and made us work.”
The Braves’ current rotation consists of Fried, Toussaint and promising prospect Kyle Wright, who have combined to make 59 career starts (43 by Fried). Huascar Ynoa will start a bullpen game for the second time within four days on Wednesday, and Atlanta’s pitchers can then reset on Thursday.
Somehow the Braves have dealt with these rotation issues while playing on each of the season’s first 20 days. Weekly off-days will help over the course of the next few weeks. But there will eventually be diminishing returns if Snitker has to continue lifting his starters before the end of the fifth on a regular basis.