Morton: 'Underperforming' Braves can flip it

April 21st, 2021

After constructing one of his best starts of the young season in a 3-1 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, delivered a profound message for those who might be worried about how he and his Braves teammates have fared.

“We're in a kind of similar position as the Yankees right now,” Morton said. “We’re a really, really, really good team. And the Yankees are a really, really good team. We’re just kind of underperforming.”

With about 10 percent of the season complete, nobody is worried about records. But it’s safe to say these two teams that are more than capable of meeting in the World Series have started slower than desired.

The last-place Yankees snapped a five-game losing streak and improved to 6-10. As for the Braves, they fell to 7-10 after losing for the sixth time in their past nine games.

“It's frustrating to lose multiple games and to feel like you're not hitting your stride,” Morton said. “But the key here is not losing sight of how good of a team we are. I don’t think they are questioning how good this team is at all. It’s just one of those times of the year where you just have to scrap and keep clawing and fighting.”

The Braves’ injured list consists of three starting pitchers (Max Fried, Mike Soroka and Drew Smyly), two top relievers (Chris Martin and Sean Newcomb) and the Opening Day roster’s only two center fielders (top prospect Cristian Pache and Ender Inciarte).

Fortunately, that list doesn’t include Ronald Acuña Jr., who suffered a mild abdominal strain on Sunday. Acuña has been the game’s most exciting and productive player during the first month. His absence was certainly felt, as the Braves scored just one run and tallied two extra-base hits in the series opener.

Those extra-base hits were the consecutive doubles that Guillermo Heredia and Ehire Adrianza recorded off Jameson Taillon in the third. The versatile Adrianza was playing right field in place of Acuña, and Heredia became the everyday center fielder when both Pache and Inciarte were injured last week.

Heredia’s seventh-inning single loaded the bases with just one out. But the Yankees escaped unscathed when Adrianza struck out against Chad Green and Freddie Freeman grounded into a forceout against Justin Wilson.

“We’re a better offensive club than this,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We just have to keep fighting the fight. That’s all we can do.”

Acuña ranks near the top of every major offensive statistical category, and Freeman’s hard-hit rate and expected statistics indicate that he could soon be every bit as productive as he was during last year’s MVP season. The concern is finding production at the bottom of the lineup and getting Marcell Ozuna back to where he was last year, when he led the National League in home runs (18).

This was yet another night when the offense’s struggles highlighted the fact that this year’s bullpen hasn’t yet shown that it will be nearly as strong as last year’s. Morton scattered three hits and two walks and allowed just one run over six innings. His curveball generated a whiff with seven of the 16 swings it induced, and both his fastballs (four-seam and two-seam) had plenty of life.

Morton got away with what he estimated to be 15 pitches that were in the heart of the strike zone. But he paid for one of those middle-middle fastballs when Gio Urshela hit a solo homer in the fifth. That stood as the Yankees’ only run until they loaded the bases in the eighth against Tyler Matzek, who has arguably been the Braves’ best reliever dating back to last year.

Matzek hadn’t allowed an earned run this year and he had surrendered just three hits over 7 2/3 innings. But his outing consisted of Aaron Hicks’ leadoff walk and consecutive singles by DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge. Matzek’s bases-loaded, no-outs mess was inherited by Nate Jones, who uncorked a decisive wild pitch and issued a bases-loaded walk.

“It's going to happen, you know -- I mean, [Matzek] is human,” Snitker said. “He threw the ball good and missed with a couple pitches. The biggest thing is a leadoff walk. You don't give yourself a chance.”

Matzek, who has a 2.70 ERA over 30 appearances dating back to the start of 2020, will likely continue to be an integral part of a bullpen that is missing Martin and Newcomb. Where the 35-year-old Jones ends up fitting after making the team as a non-roster invitee remains to be seen.

“Every year, the bullpens are different,” Snitker said. “You use them and give them responsibility. You see who takes it, and they establish their own roles.”