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.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Rays 4: That’s 12 in a row for Houston, with this one ending dramatically. Down 4-0 early and still down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Marwin Gonzaelz drew a leadoff walk, Max Stassi singled, Tony Kemp bunted the two of them over to second and third, George Springer reached on catcher’s interference to load the bases and then Alex Bregman doubled in two in walkoff fashion. The Astros have won two games with walkoffs this year, both coming off the bat of Bregman.

Diamondbacks 7, Angels 4Paul Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer and Zack Greinke was solid, as the Dbacks won by three. It could’ve been a different outcome if it were not for this play from Jarrod Dyson — made when Justin Upton was batting with the bases loaded — which may very well have saved four:

The Diamondbacks have won 12 of 16. The Angels have lost 7 of 8 and have gone from 3.5 back in the AL West to 10.5 back in that stretch. Mike Trout reached base four times. Over the last seven games, he has reached base in 24 of 33 plate appearances. The Angels are 1-6 in that stretch.

Indians 6, White Sox 2: Trevor Bauer tossed seven shutout innings allowing only three hits and would’ve gone longer if it wasn’t for a rain delay. Jason Kipnis homered and drove in two and Roberto Perez knocked in two with a ground rule double. The White Sox have lost five in a row. Matt Davidson homered. He’s like a poor man’s Mike Trout insofar as the “he does well, the team loses lots” thing goes.

Pirates 1, Brewers 0: Jordy Mercer‘s seventh inning RBI double plated the game’s only run. Trevor Williams allowed only one hit in seven shutout innings for the Buccos, outdueling Jhoulys Chacin. The Brewers notched only two hits all game long. Or all game short, as this one lasted only two hours and thirty-two minutes.

Phillies 6, Cardinals 5: Phillies starter Nick Pivetta struck out 13 while allowing only two runs in seven and a third, but the bullpen blew it and the Cards to tie things up in the ninth on, of all things, a dropped third strike that allowed a run to score. On to extras, where the Cardinals took a one-run lead in the 10th. In the bottom half the Phillies rallied, however, putting two men on. With two outs, Aaron Altherr lined one into left field. Rather than keep the ball in front of him, limiting the damage and giving his team a chance to end it with one more out, Marcell Ozuna tried to dive for the ball and . . . missed. It trickled past him and the Phillies won it in a walkoff:

Nationals 5, Yankees 3; Yankees 4, Nationals 2: The first game was the resumption of a game from May 15 that was suspended due to rain. Juan Soto of the Nationals was in the minors on May 15, but played in the resumption, hitting a two-run homer which gave the Nats the win. Technically he is considered to have done so on May 15 even though he did not make his big league debut until May 20. He also happened to go 3-for-4 with an RBI for Double-A Harrisburg on May 15. Some day you can look up stats online and win a bar bet with that, at least if you find websites that don’t put asterisks on such things. In the game actually scheduled for last night Sonny Gray allowed two over five, Aaron Hicks hit a two-run homer and Giancarlo Stanton drove in two.

Rangers 6, Royals 3Adrian Beltre hit a three-run homer, Shin-Soo Choo went deep and Bartolo Colon earned his 244th victory, passing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for the most by a pitcher born in the Dominican Republic. The Royals — who just before the game, traded away closer Kelvin Herrera to the Washington Nationals — have lost seven straight and 13 of 14. The Rangers have won three in a row.

Mets 12, Rockies 2: For the first time in ages Jacob deGrom got some dang run support. Most of it came late, as New York scored nine of their 12 runs from the seventh inning on, but that’s better than what deGrom has been getting. For his part, he allowed two runs — one earned — over eight innings of work and likely enjoyed the heck out of himself watching Brandon Nimmo hit an inside-the-park homer to lead the game off AND hit a conventional bomb in the seventh. Wilmer Flores and Devin Mesoraco went yard too. Here are Nimmo’s heroics. Come for the long drive, stay for the Rockies’ awful defense which allowed the inside-the-parker to happen:

Marlins 5, Giants 4: San Francisco had a 4-0 lead as late as the fifth inning and still led 4-2 in the ninth when Hunter Strickland tried to close it out but didn’t. Brian Anderson led off with a walk and the next man up, J.T. Realmuto, doubled him in. Then Justin Bour walked, Cameron Maybin erased him with a fielder’s choice and took first base followed by Lewis Brinson singling in Realmuto. The next batter up, Miguel Rojas singled in Maybin to complete the rally which held up.

Dodgers vs. Cubs — POSTPONED:

Now I will stand in the rain on the corner
I watch the people go shuffling downtown
Another ten minutes no longer
And then I’m turning around, ’round
And the clock on the wall’s moving slower
Oh, my heart it sinks to the ground
And the storm that I thought would blow over
Clouds the light of the love that I found, found
Light of the love that I found
Light of the love that I found
Oh, that I found