The Braves’ bullpen has been very good in the early going, coming into Friday night’s game tied for second in MLB in fWAR, fifth in MLB in WPA, and with only two teams with fewer meltdowns. But, a good, even a great bullpen is not a perfect bullpen, and tonight’s implosion cost the Braves what seemed to be a throughline to an easy win.
Yes, Atlanta cruised for most of this game, behind Bryce Elder and at the expense of what seemed to be a torpid Houston attack. Though the Astros struck first, with Austin Riley making a throwing error to allow the leadoff man to reach in the game’s first PA, and Alex Bregman following with an RBI double, Elder righted the ship and then coasted. He used two strikeouts and a lineout to center to escape the first, got double plays in each of the next two innings, and then allowed just a few stray baserunners while completing six frames. His final line was a 6/1 K/BB ratio and just that one unearned run in six innings, which was more than enough, because...
...the Braves immediately roared back against Hunter Brown and the ‘Stros. Ronald Acuña Jr. started the home half of the first with a bloop double, and scored as Riley jumped on a first-pitch slider-cutter down the middle and ripped a double of his own. After that, Sean Murphy walked, and after Eddie Rosario struck out, Ozzie Albies swung at a curveball off the plate and down but served it into left-center for a two-run double. Vaughn Grissom followed with a ripped grounder single through short that scored Albies, and the Braves had a 4-1 lead.
Brown mostly settled down after that, though he did allow another, more hard-hit Acuña double, as well as another walk and a HBP. He left with a 7/2 K/BB ratio in 4 2⁄3 innings, but the Braves got no more runs off him or the Astros relief corps the rest of the way.
This game really turned in the seventh, as Jesse Chavez took over for Elder. The Atlanta bullpen has been somewhat shorthanded, with both Raisel Iglesias and Collin McHugh on the shelf, and that’s led to the phenomenon of Jesse Chavez, seventh-inning guy. That hadn’t really burned the Braves yet, but did big time in this game, as Chavez threw 11 pitches to four batters and completely frittered away the 4-1 lead. Against the bottom of Houston’s order, Chavez issued a leadoff walk, gave up a near-homer to Yainer Diaz that bounced high off the wall in right-center and ended up being a “double” with an error charged to Acuña for dropping the ball when picking it up off the carom, gave up an RBI single to Jake Meyers, and then an 0-2 double to Mauricio Dubon that tied the game. All of this, in 11 pitches. Dylan Lee then came on, walked Bregman, and got the next three outs to keep the game tied, and Nick Anderson threw a scoreless eighth.
But, the ninth went more awry for the Braves. A.J. Minter allowed just a single through three batters, aided by Kevin Pillar making a great diving catch on a Bregman liner to left. Then, with a 3-2 count on Alvarez, a weird sequence cost the Braves the game. With the pitch clock winding down, Minter kinda-sorta stepped off and kinda-sorta half-faked a throw to first, but he never actually made the throw because Matt Olson was playing behind the runner, and was charged a balk. The balk itself didn’t matter, but Minter’s next pitch arguably missed its location horribly and got deposited into right-center by Alvarez. Did the whole pitch clock rushing thing affect Minter? I have no idea. I figure that’ll be a point of some debate.
The Braves had a ghost of a chance against Ryan Pressly in the ninth, as Pillar walked to bring the tying run to the plate. But, Acuña struck out on what was probably a ball four slider in a 3-2 count, and Olson could only manage to take an inside slider and loft it out to center to end the game.
The Braves fall to 14-6, but will get another crack at knocking off the Astros tomorrow evening.