Michael Soroka’s return to the majors was uplifting, emotional, and even joyous. Facing off against another debutee in Paul Blackburn, it created a dichotomy of sorts. Two pitchers returning from injury and a lot of minor league pitching earlier this year. One of those pitchers was yanked after facing a lineup twice through the order. One was left in, and got knocked around. Without watching this game, you’d figure that from those two sentences alone, it was the Braves, with much more to lose, that acted with prudence, right? But you already know it wasn’t: Soroka allowed a three-run homer to one of the only dangerous Athletics hitters when facing him a third time, and the Braves showed little urgency or care in trying to notch this game as a win.
But, on the plus side, they did save the bullpen by only requiring two innings across three pitchers that they don’t particularly like using with leads or in close games anyway, so they might internally chalk this one up as a win, Soroka’s almost-triumphant return aside. Who knows?
Look, the reality is that you’re not always going to win, even against a team as horrid as the Athletics, even when your team is as stacked as what the Braves have put together. Soroka could’ve had a rocky landing (he didn’t). Your bats might just not get enough traction, even against a historically bad pitching staff (yep). Other weird baseball stuff might happen. The idea isn’t that some wins are guaranteed, or that you can guarantee them by following some magic script. It’s just that you have to try, and by that I mean, prioritize winning. It won’t always work. Sometimes it’ll blow up in your face repeatedly. But the Braves clearly felt that they didn’t have to bother with that sort of thing today, and eventually, they ran out of outs. Overconfidence is usually a path to a slow demise, but it came pretty quickly in this game.
The good news is that for someone who hadn’t appeared in the bigs since August 2020, and had to rebuild his pitching style from the ground up, Soroka didn’t look like he missed too many beats. Sure, the Athletics aren’t a terrifying offense or anything, but Soroka mostly looked fine. He clearly struggled with something grip- or release-related on a few hit-by-pitches, but other than that, it didn’t feel like this was the culmination of a long journey back. It was, for his first 18 batters, pretty much a Michael Soroka start, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Soroka retired the first five batters he faced, with an assist from Eddie Rosario, who robbed Aledmys Diaz of a potential homer with a jumping catch in the left-field corner. He issued a walk in the second, and loaded the bases with one out in the third on two singles and a hit-by-pitch, but then got out of the jam by getting Seth Brown to pull an outside 0-2 pitch into a double play ball to second. He then bounced back with a typical Soroka ho-hum, 10-pitch, three-groundout inning.
The bottom of the fifth started with one of those mis-thrown balls, as Soroka plunked Shea Langeliers with an 0-2 pitch. After a bunt try led to a force at second, fellow 2023 debutee Jonah Bride collected his second hit with a flare to center. At this point, 18 batters in, the Braves could have just pulled Soroka. He had debuted, he pitched pretty well, he made a one-run lead stand up this far. Nope. Soroka stayed in. Esteury Ruiz followed with a 50-50 grounder single that scored a run and put both runners in scoring position thanks to Rosario’s poor throw. Rather than walk Ryan Noda, only of only two guys in the Oakland lineup with even a passable set of offensive inputs to date, the Braves elected to pitch to him, tie game, third time through, platoon disadvantage, and all. Noda hit a relatively cheap homer (31 percent hit probability) towards the right-field corner, and like many Greek myths, the bill for hubris had come due.
Not that the Braves learned, though to Soroka’s credit, he did what he could afterwards. He got two groundouts to end the fateful fifth, and made it out of the sixth (!!) issuing just one more walk. His overall line for the start was pretty junky, but it was made deadly by the events after batter no. 18. So it goes, except it didn’t have to.
Meanwhile, the Braves scratched across a first-inning run off Paul Blackburn, but couldn’t do anything else against him before he was pulled after facing his 18th batter. That run came courtesy of a slow roller up the middle off the bat of Sean Murphy, preceded by back-to-back singles by Matt Olson and Austin Riley. Blackburn looked pretty solid for much of the game, with a 6/2 K/BB ratio in six innings of work. What really killed Atlanta, though, was not being able to touch infielder-turned-pitcher Lucas Erceg, who threw three perfect innings in relief of Blackburn. Pulling your mostly-cruising guy after 18 batters and letting a bulky relief option won’t always work out, and honestly, the Athletics probably didn’t even draw things up this way before the game. But it worked perfectly tonight.
The Braves pulled within a run when Olson took Shintaro Fujinami deep in the eighth, after Kirby Yates pitched a scoreless seventh. That inning was made more frustrating by the fact that Ronald Acuña Jr. had a barreled lineout right before Olson’s dinger, the second barreled out of the game for the Braves. (Atlanta had all three barrels in this one.) Again, you can’t make the balls fall, and maybe the Braves were destined to lose this one by virtue of surrending a low-probability three-run homer while two of their three barrels were outs, but you could at least try to skew the odds in your favor a bit better.
In the end, it didn’t end up mattering, because the Braves asked Lucas Luetge to face a bunch of righties in the eighth, and Luetge’s miserable campaign continued. Luetge struck out the first batter he faced, a lefty, but then hit Diaz with a pitch and walked pinch-hitter Brent Rooker. A hard-hit 50-50 grounder scored a fifth run, and then the Braves pulled a typical “ah well we’re losing time to fall apart more” move when Riley got in Luetge’s way on a tapper, leading to a “single” that scored another run. A perfectly-placed flare by former Brave Jace Peterson gave Oakland a seventh run before the Braves apparently realized that hey, maybe don’t let Luetge face more righties, and put in Joe Jimenez against a lefty... who retired said lefty, but then walked a righty, and eventually got out of the inning.
The Braves hit a couple of balls hard in the ninth against Trevor May, but to no avail, as they couldn’t even score a third run.
I guess we’ll hope they take the lessons from this game to heart going forward, but we’ve seen this show so many times before, that feathers are the only thing that hope has going for it at this point. The roster’s great, this team is a lot of fun, and hey, even Soroka’s back now. But the same mistakes (really, a single mistake) coming home to roost over and over is as tiresome as it was a couple of years ago. Even given the latitude that the rotation has been ripped apart early this season, the reality is that the bullpen hasn’t been taxed at all so far (16th in innings, 19th in batters faced coming into this game), and the Braves came into this game with essentially a clean bullpen slate due to the rout of the Phillies last night. The need to safeguard the workloads of a few relievers at the expense of win expectancy seems like to continue — the Braves will just have to hit better than they did today to overcome it, as usual.