Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is fond of saying that any team without an inside game is a fraud.
After watching Atlanta Braves reliever A.J. Minter blow a 3-0 lead in the top of the ninth inning with nobody on, two outs and two strikes against Colorado Rockies batter Trevor Story on Saturday night — a meltdown that became the Braves' 15th blown save of the season in the eventual 5-3, 10-inning loss — it would be easy to say that Atlanta is a fraud. That no team with so unreliable a bullpen can win in the postseason, even if it somehow can get there.
Or to use Minter's words: "It was just pretty pathetic on my part."
And there is little doubt that the Braves are at least flawed, if not an outright fraud regarding their relievers. Not a single pitcher leaving that bullpen at any point in the game instills confidence rather than concern. Not one.
But a quick glance at relief work throughout the National League shows that the Braves, even among legitimate playoff contenders only, are not alone in their bullpen brittleness.
For instance, the NL's seeming gold standard for pitching prowess, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have seen their relievers blow a stunning 24 games in 63 save chances to date (62 percent efficiency). Colorado has blown 23 of 65 (65 percent). Milwaukee has thrown away 19 of 52 (63 percent). St. Louis has coughed up 18 of 50 (64 percent).
So the Braves coming up short in 15 of their 45 save opportunities thus far (67 percent effective) is actually somewhat above the norm among NL playoff contenders.
Of course, that might also explain why Philadelphia, having blown only 14 of 51 opportunities (73 percent efficiency), and the Cubs — 13 of 50 for 74 percent — are as strong as they are.
Yet to fully understand not only the importance of a great bullpen, but also why Boston's Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics are having the seasons they are, just look to those three American League playoff contenders.
Boston headed into Monday night having blown only 13 of 53 saves chances (75 percent). The Yankees have blown 12 of 48 in that category (75 percent). Then there are those amazing A's, with baseball's lowest payroll this season — $66 million to leader San Francisco's $221 million — but MLB's best save rate at 76 percent (12 blown in 49 chances heading into Monday night).
What does all this mean? To be fair to the Braves, closer Arodys Vizcaino has missed noticeable time due to injury but has converted 15 of 17 save chances (88 percent) when healthy. Despite Minter's Saturday collapse against Colorado, he's made good on 11 of his 13 save opportunities (85 percent).
So there should still be hope for the stretch run, which began Monday night in Pittsburgh. Look closely and the schedule is neither a killer nor a cupcake. There are three remaining off days. Nineteen home games. Nineteen road games after Monday.
Twenty-four of the remaining 38 games do come against teams who owned winning records prior to Monday night, including three against the stunningly good Red Sox, though at least those three are at SunTrust Park, where the Braves might have slightly more than half the fans.
Quite fittingly, seven of the final 10 come against the stubborn Phillies — the first four at home and the final three on the road to end the regular season. There's also a tough seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco in early September. A further reason for concern: The Braves are eight games under .500 (28-36) against the NL's Central and West divisions, and 22 of their remaining 38 games are against teams outside the NL East.
None of this means the Braves can't or won't reach the playoffs. Beyond that, a healthy Vizcaino with Minter as a set-up man might strengthen the beleaguered bullpen. Get to the postseason and anything can happen, though it hasn't happened in any meaningful way for the Bravos since 1999, which was the last time they reached the World Series, even if they were swept by the Yankees and flawless closer Mariano Rivera.
But you do have to wonder why at least some of that stocked farm system wasn't dealt away before the end of July for a more reliable reliever. Playoff chances don't come along every day unless you have the deep pockets of the Red Sox and Yankees. Even then, look at the Giants. Biggest payroll in the majors and they entered Monday three games under .500.
Said Braves skipper Brian Snitker to MLB.com after losing four straught to the Rockies: "In this business, about the time you think you've got something figured out, you're going to get kicked in the teeth."
If Atlanta doesn't soon figure out how to correct its relief issues, it's going to get kicked to the playoff curb for the fifth year in a row, its bullpen a fraud rather than a force when it was needed the most.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org