Jonny Venters

The wheels are falling off the Braves Express


Actually, I think the wheels fell off about ten days ago.  They’ve been carving up pavement with the rotors since then, but now the rotors are about to go too.  At this rate, this time next week they’ll be up on the back of a flatbed, off to the junkyard, wondering what the hell happened.

And what has happened?  What has caused them to lose 12 of 18 and fritter away a once seemingly insurmountable lead in the wild card race?  It’s hard to find one damning culprit. When you lose a game because your third basemen loses a GROUND BALL IN THE LIGHTS, you know that something greater than mere bad luck.  But let’s ignore the supernatural angles to all of this for a second and try to think in baseball terms.

The starting pitching has obviously taken a hit since Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson went down, but it hasn’t been disastrous. At least in games that Derek Lowe hasn’t started.  The offense has never been a source of strength this year, but it’s not in anything approaching its worst swoon of the season.  Each are mediocre at the moment, and given how much the Braves have relied on pitching this year that would make for some sub-par baseball.  But what’s been going on lately has been worse than merely sub-par.

No, what happened is that the safety net — the thing that has covered for periods of mediocrity throughout the year — has finally given out. I’m talking about the back end of the bullpen, of course. It has simply tuckered out.  Johnny Venters was touched on Sunday. Craig Kimbrel last night.  These guys have pitched a combined 159 games this year and have less than three years combined service time.  They’re gassed. It’s something that anyone who watches the Braves has seen coming since May, when Fredi Gonzalez acted as if those two were invincible. Well, sorry Fredi.

The Braves are a good team with an imbalance of talents.  When the greatest strength of an imbalanced team becomes a liability, it turns them into a bad team.  That’s what’s going on right now. That and a spectacular surge by the Cardinals.  We can call it a choke because that’s what we’ve come to call late collapses like this one, but a choke is an effect, not a cause of this kind of breakdown. Chokes are comprised of identifiable failures, and here we have a fairly identifiable one: the one thing that gives a team the best chance to win close games — it’s bullpen — is not at its best right now.  And given the rest of the team’s flaws, they’re almost always going to play close games.

And of course the poor planning of Theo Epstein certainly isn’t helping.

Maybe Alcides Escobar shouldn’t bat leadoff

Alcides Escobar
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Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.

Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.

Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.

It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.

Astros top Royals in Game 1 of ALDS

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, left, celebrates with teammate Luis Valbuena after scoring a run during the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After shutting out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday, the Astros beat the Royals 5-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. Road teams are now 4-0 to begin the 2015 postseason.

The Astros grabbed an early 3-0 lead against Yordano Ventura through two innings. Chris Young took over for the Royals after a 47-minute rain delay and was very effective for the most part, allowing just a solo homer to George Springer over four innings while striking out seven batters. Colby Rasmus, who homered in the Wild Card game, took Ryan Madson deep in the eighth inning to give the Astros’ bullpen some extra breathing room.

Collin McHugh stayed in after the rain delay and ended up tossing six innings while allowing just four hits and one walk. Kendrys Morales did all the damage against him with a pair of solo homers. He’s the first Royals player to hit two home runs in a postseason game since George Brett in the 1985 ALCS.

The Royals’ offense showed some signs of life in the bottom of the eighth inning with back-to-back two-out hits against Will Harris, but Oliver Perez got Eric Hosmer to foul out to end the threat. Luke Gregerson tossed a scoreless ninth inning to finish off the victory.

Consistent with their identity during the regular season, the Astros won despite striking out 14 times. The same goes for the Royals, as they struck out just four times. Despite putting the ball into play more often, the Kansas City lineup wasn’t able to muster anything aside from the home runs by Morales.

Game 2 of the ALDS will begin Friday at 3:45 p.m. ET. Scott Kazmir will pitch for the Astros and Johnny Cueto will get the ball for the Royals.

George Springer homers to extend Astros’ lead over Royals

Houston Astros' George Springer (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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After Kendrys Morales brought the Royals within one run in the bottom of the fourth inning with his second solo home run of the game, George Springer took Chris Young deep in the top of the fifth to extend the Astros’ lead to 4-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS.

According to Statcast, the ball traveled an estimated 422 feet and left Springer’s bat at 109 mph. Royals fans are happy it was just a solo home run. It could have been worse, as Jose Altuve singled to lead off the fifth inning before being thrown out trying to steal second base during Springer’s at-bat.

The Royals will try to answer as we move to the bottom of the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium.