With Shane Greene No Savior, Atlanta Braves Still Battle Bullpen Blues
So far, the signing of Shane Green hasn’t helped.
Last year, the bullpen was a bulwark for the Atlanta Braves, posting a 27-0 record in games the team led after seven innings. This year, through the first 71 games of a 162-game schedule, the figures for the so-called relief corps are frightening: a 9-18 mark, 4.94 earned run average, and only 16 saves in 28 opportunities.
Entering the game against the Mets at CitiField Wednesday, the Atlanta pen had retired just 173 of 261 first batters faced and allowed 44 of 108 inherited runners to score.
Those numbers aren’t pretty. But they do explain why the Braves have never topped the .500 mark this season and never mounted a serious challenge to the front-running New York Mets in the National League East.
Unable to stay close Wednesday night after spotting New York an early 5-0 lead and narrowing the gap to 5-3, the Braves missed multiple scoring opportunities without injured outfielders Ronald Acuna Jr. and Guillermo Heredia, but also failed to keep a close game close because the bullpen imploded again.
For the fourth time in six appearances since his elevation from a month-long prep period in Triple-A, Greene was hit hard, leaving him with an earned run average of 17.33 after he yielded a walk and two singles in the bottom of the eighth.
Greene, a 6-4, 200-pound right-hander, had pitched well for the Braves after arriving from Detroit at the 2019 trade deadline. But then his contract expired, making him a free agent.
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After earning a pro-rated portion of his $6.5 million salary during the 60-game season of 2020, he returned to the Braves for a pro-rated $1.5 million on May 9. But the bearded reliever didn’t return from his minor-league tuneup until June 8. If his shoddy showing since serves as an accurate barometer, he may not have been ready.
Payroll cuts – mandated by management after the pandemic wiped out Atlanta’s game-day revenue to the tune of $100 million last year – hit the bullpen hardest.
Closer Mark Melancon, set-up man Darren O’Day, and swing man Greene were among the casualties, along with outfielders Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis. For manager Brian Snitker, any call to the bullpen immediately became the equivalent of a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Of his five lefties on call, only closer Will Smith has proven reasonably reliable. Sean Newcomb, never a control artist, has allowed nine of 15 inherited runners to score; fellow lefty A.J. Minter has blown all five of his save chances; and workhorse Tyler Matzek has suffered bouts of wildness that did not plague him last season.
Matzek gave up two hits and a run Wednesday night as the Mets got a combined five hits from veterans Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto, both back this week from long stays on the injury list.
Snitker’s best bet has been journeyman Luke Jackson, who entered Wednesday with a 1.04 earned run average and 27 scoreless appearances this season but did not appear in the game.
Chris Martin, who did, yielded two hits but escaped unscathed after yielding three runs in two of his previous three outings and picking up a pair of losses in the process.
The burden has fallen squarely on the brawny shoulders of Smith, a 6-5, 225-pound southpaw in the second year of a three-year, $40 million deal. He’s converted all but one of his 15 save chances and averaged 12.13 strikeouts per nine innings. He also has more appearances in high-leverage situations than any reliever in the majors, according to baseball-reference.com.
Before the game Wednesday, Snitker praised Smith for improving his performance as the season has progressed. He also praised starting pitchers Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Max Fried, and Drew Smyly but had little to say about his ragged relief corps.
In its mad shuffle to keep games from getting out of hand, the Braves have tried Edgar Santana, Ty Tice, Jacob Webb, and Josh Tomlin, a 12-year veteran who throws strikes. Tomlin pitched two scoreless innings, with a pair of strikeouts, against the Mets Wednesday night.
For the entire Atlanta bullpen, keeping the ball in the park has been a struggle. Braves relievers have allowed 33 home runs, including an especially-deflating one by Smith in Philadelphia that turned a 1-0 lead with two outs in the ninth into a 2-1 defeat. Walks, wild pitches, and passed balls – especially with inexperienced rookie catcher William Contreras the primary catcher in the absence of injured veteran Travis d’Arnaud – have also hurt.
Although Atlanta had closed to within four games of the division lead with consecutive shutout wins over the Mets earlier this week, the Braves still have to find a cure for their late-inning blues. If they don’t, a fourth straight NL East crown – not to mention another trip to the playoffs – will be in jeopardy.
By splitting their four-game series in New York, the team remains five games out of first place.
The Braves have not won a pennant since 1999 or a world championship since 1995 but still hold the record for most consecutive division titles (14). Chances are strong that the team’s top priority at the trade deadline will be refurbishing the battered bullpen.