Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman reacts after striking out in Game 3 against the Dodgers. Freeman and the Braves will have a long offseason second-guessing themselves about the disappointing series loss to Los Angeles. (Reuters)
LOS ANGELES — The Braves led 3-2 in the eighth inning Monday and were six outs from bringing the division series against the Dodgers back to Atlanta for a Game 5. Which is something, when you consider what a train wreck of a series it was for the Braves in many ways.
They hit .214 with one home run, five extra-base hits and 42 strikeouts in four games, while the Dodgers hit .333 with seven homers and 18 extra-base hits and had a .390 on-base percentage.
Braves pitchers posted a 5.82 ERA and allowed 46 hits in 34 innings, and Game 1 starter Kris Medlen and Game 3 starter Julio Teheran gave up a combined 17 hits and 11 runs in 6 2/3 innings.
The Braves’ defense was sensational in the second game of the series, but slipshod at times in other games.
And there were head-scratching moments. When catcher Brian McCann had David Carpenter pitching Yasiel Puig on the outer part of the plate in the disastrous eighth inning Monday, why was Freddie Freeman playing off the first-base line and Chris Johnson guarding the third-base line?
Puig hit an opposite-field shot up the first-base line for a leadoff double, and Juan Uribe followed with a dagger of a two-run homer.
Uribe gave the Dodgers a 4-3 lead, which would hold up when the Braves struck out in order in the ninth, one final flurry of whiffs for a team that had 12 strikeouts Monday and led the National League with a franchise-record 1,384 this season.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has been second-guessed for not going to rested closer Craig Kimbrel to start the eighth inning or bringing him in after Puig doubled. Kimbrel has recorded more than four outs once in three years as closer, when he pitched two full innings in a 12-inning game in April 2011.
Then again, Dodgers ace Clayton Kerhaw never pitched on three days’ rest before doing it Monday, when he pitched six strong innings after striking out 12 and throwing 124 pitches in Game 1.
The Braves stuck with their plan not to use Kimbrel for more than four outs and saw the game slip away.
“We had it set up — we double-switched and put our best defense out there — we had it set up to bring him in for four outs,” Gonzalez said. “I think six outs was something that we weren’t even talking about in the dugout.”
Uribe hit a huge homer, and Kimbrel could only stand in the bullpen and watch, looking perturbed.
The series might not have come down to one swing of Uribe’s bat if the Braves had pitched better elsewhere in the series.
“For us to scrap one run against Kershaw in the first game, if I do my job a lot better than I did it puts us in a way better spot to at least compete,” said Medlen, who was charged with nine hits and five runs in four innings of the 6-1 loss in the opener. “Once that last out’s made (in Monday’s series-clinching loss) and I start reflecting on what I could have done differently, it just makes me more mad. It’s tough, but it’s part of the game.”
Uribe’s homer was the capper of the two-strike woes Braves pitchers had during the series, unable to put away hitters.
With two strikes, Dodgers hitters went 20-for-77 (.260) with five doubles, four homers, 11 RBIs, seven walks and 35 strikeouts. Meanwhile, too many Braves hitters did what they had done all season in two-strike counts — not shorten strokes or alter approaches. They went 12-for-76 (.158) with 42 strikeouts in two-strike counts vs. Los Angeles.
Evan Gattis, Freeman and Johnson were 17-for-46 (.370) with six RBIs and 12 strikeouts in the series, while all other Braves were 11-for-85 (.129) with eight RBIs and 30 strikeouts. Pending free agent Brian McCann, in possibly his last Braves series, went 0-for-13, including 0-for-4 with four strikeouts Monday.
Their offensive malaise in the series not only was a continuation of the last month of the season for the Braves, but also similar to other Braves teams during the postseason losing streak that’s now at seven series and the 2012 Wild Card game.
In their last 28 games this year, regular season and the division series, the Braves were 12-16 with a .223 average and 98 runs (3.5 per game). They scored three runs or fewer in 15 of those 28 games.
The Braves had the best bullpen ERA (2.46) and overall ERA (3.18) in the majors this season, while their starters’ 3.51 ERA ranked fifth in the NL. Three NL teams with betters starters’ ERAs are still alive in the postseason, including the Dodgers, who led the majors by a wide margin with a 3.13 ERA.
The Cardinals (3.42) and Pirates (3.50) also had better starters’ ERAs than the Braves. And unlike the Braves, whose staff included a bunch of pitchers who all could be classified as Nos. 2-4 starters, the Cardinals and Dodgers each had at least one bona fide ace in St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright and L.A.’s Kershaw. The Pirates’ Francisco Liriano fits the bill.
The Braves have some good young starters, a couple of whom might develop into aces. For now, they didn’t match well against the Dodgers.
The postseason loss brought into focus some of the Braves’ needs — a No. 1 starter, should they decide to open a spot for one; and a big addition or two to the lineup, along with major progress from B.J. Upton and/or Dan Uggla.
Some speculated last spring that the Braves might have at least 20 stolen bases and 20 homers from each of their starting outfielders, Justin and B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward. But that trio combined for only 22 stolen bases and 50 homers, with Justin Upton accounting for 27 homers, 12 of them in April.