The wheels are falling off the Braves Express

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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.

Erasmo Ramirez to be shut down with a minor lat strain

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Mariners right-hander Erasmo Ramirez has been shut down for two weeks with a minor lat strain, reports Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. It’s a precautionary move, as Ramirez felt some tightness in his arm and could not complete his scheduled bullpen session on Saturday.

There’s no word yet on whether Ramirez will be able to recover in time for the start of the season, though he’s expected to claim a rotation spot again this spring. The 28-year-old righty has been dogged by injuries throughout his six-year career, but finally managed to piece together a full season on the mound in back-to-back stints with the Rays and Mariners in 2017. He went 5-6 in 19 starts for the two clubs and turned in a cumulative 4.39 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 and 7.5 SO/9 through 131 1/3 innings.

The Mariners are no stranger to pitcher injuries, either. They lost a number of their top arms to various elbow, arm and shoulder injuries last year and cycled through 40 total pitchers as they limped toward a 78-84 finish. Comments from club manager Scott Servais indicate that the team will keep a close eye on Ramirez throughout his recovery, though Divish notes that right-hander Andrew Moore and lefty Ariel Miranda could also slot into the no. 5 spot if Ramirez experiences further setbacks.