Wiedmer: Braves about to face their most important week of the season

Wiedmer: Braves about to face their most important week of the season

August 11th, 2019 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves reliever Sean Newcomb sits in the dugout during the eighth inning of Saturday night's game against the host Miami Marlins. Newcomb kicked a garbage can after giving up the winning run in the 10th inning of the 7-6 loss to the Marlins. The metal garbage can hit the fire extinguisher hanging nearby on the tunnel wall between the dugout and clubhouse, and chemical dust began to spew.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

A quick multiple-choice question: What's worse than the Atlanta Braves bullpen?

A) a root canal.

B) a leaky roof.

C) a fender bender.

D) a clogged toilet.

E) none of the above.

The answer is "E," because the first four problems can be fixed. On this 12th day of August, it is becoming increasingly doubtful that anything can fix the Atlanta bullpen short of Hall of Famer John Smoltz coming out of retirement to be the team's closer.

Did you catch a few minutes — or a few hours — of this past weekend's meltdown at Miami? Understand that this wasn't exactly the 1927 New York Yankees that Atlanta's relievers struggled to retire. These were the Marlins, who are statistically the most anemic offense in the National League.

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

Yet a 6-2 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth became a 7-6 loss in 10 innings Saturday. Even Sunday's 5-4 victory — which did feature three innings of scoreless relief — included this in the eighth inning: Sean Newcomb walking back-to-back Marlins, neither of whom was batting as much as .200 at the time.

We repeat: Newcomb walked two straight sub-.200 hitters.

And you wonder why when Braves skipper Brian Snitker came out to remove Newcomb after the second of those walks, he never made eye contact with the pitcher. If a no-look could kill, that was it.

All of which brings us to this week at SunTrust Park and a pair of crucial three-game series against the red-hot New York Mets and the season-long juggernaut that is the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With a 6 1/2-game lead over the Washington Nationals in the NL's East Division, the Braves could technically lose all six games they play against the Mets and Dodgers and still be in first place by half a game this time next week.

But this week also feels like the biggest one of the year on two fronts. One, whether the Mets wind up reaching the playoffs or not, they're arguably the hottest team in baseball at the moment, having won eight of their past nine games.

Then there are the Dodgers, an opponent the Braves certainly hope to avoid in the postseason until the NL Championship Series after meeting them in the divisional round a year ago. Unless something truly shocking happens, the Dodgers are going to make the NLCS. The Braves almost certainly need to prove to both themselves and their fans that they can at least hang with the Dodgers should the two meet in the postseason.

Let the worst-case scenario happen — six straight losses to the Mets and Dodgers — and it might be fair to wonder if Atlanta can even reach the postseason.

And the shame of it is, this just might be the most dangerous offense — especially at the top of the lineup — the Braves have ever had. In leadoff man Ronald Acuna Jr. and No. 2 batter Ozzie Albies, Atlanta has a 1-2 punch that has to be the envy of pretty much everyone in baseball.

Acuna heads into Tuesday night's series opener against New York batting .296 with 32 home runs, 97 runs scored and 28 stolen bases, numbers that should have him smack in the middle of NL MVP consideration.

As for Albies, he's hitting .302 with 18 homers, 65 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Throw in the rest of an offense that trails only the Dodgers for runs scored in the NL (and that by a single run, 648 to 647) and there's no question that this team should be better, especially after the three-headed reliever acquisition of Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon at the trade deadline.

Instead, during Saturday night's ninth-inning collapse, Melancon and Greene combined to surrender six straight hits. Only a remarkable relay throw home from former Calhoun High School standout Charlie Culberson to veteran catcher Brian McCann to cut down what would have been the winning run forced the extra inning.

Said Snitker late Saturday: "You keep giving guys chances, and it just comes back and bites you."

Melancon believes it may all be darkest before the dawn.

"We're going to come together real nice at a time that's coming soon," the veteran pitcher said. "We've got some kinks to work out, and we're going to do that. I'm not concerned about it cause we've got a lot of mentally strong guys here. It's a little bit like spring training right now with everything, but there's no excuse."

You hope he's right. It would be a shame to waste this wonderful offense. And maybe something that happened at the close of that Saturday loss can become a symbol for better days.

After his errant throw to first led to the winning run for the Marlins in the 10th, Newcomb kicked a trash can that somehow punctured a fire extinguisher that wound up spraying the visitors' clubhouse with a powder that took hours to clean.

It might be reaching, but maybe the Braves relievers can take something from that. They desperately need to become fire extinguishers rather than fire starters. And there would be no better time to embrace that mindset than this week, when the Atlanta bullpen sorely needs to prove it can bite someone other than Snitker.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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